The arrival of Pope Francis in the Democratic Republic of Congo could not have come at a better time.
The Argentine’s plane landed at Ndjili Airport in Kinshasa at 3 pm on Tuesday, after which the 86-year-old global leader was hosted at the presidential palace by DR Congo leader Felix Tshisekedi.
The six-day tour comes at a time when the vast, populous and poverty-stricken DRC is mired in conflict with M23 rebels, who Kinshasa insists are bankrolled by Rwanda, wreaking havoc and taking large swathes of territory in North Kivu Province.
The Pope is expected to meet leaders and victims of violence in the Congo and in Juba, neighbouring South Sudan, another poor country that has been rocked by conflicts ever since it gained independence from Sudan in 2011.
The visit by the leader of the Catholic Church, which had been postponed from July last year over the Pope’s knee pain and security concerns, should give new impetus to the quest for lasting peace not only in the Congo and South Sudan but the entire eastern and Horn of Africa region.
That his itinerary revolves around the two conflict-scarred countries is a great chance to ratchet up peace efforts. The visit affords the region’s leaders, the church, the diplomatic community and the civil society a chance to enlist his help in prevailing upon belligerent groups in the region to come to the negotiating table.
Pope Francis will be joined in Juba by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the leader of the Church of Scotland. This is a heaven-sent opportunity, considering that it is the first time a Catholic pontiff is visiting the Congo since Pope John II came calling in 1985.
This high-profile presence in a war-scarred region is an opportunity regional leaders cannot afford to fritter away.