Vatican City, Jan 31, 2023 / 06:15 am (CNA).
Before departing on his flight to Africa on Tuesday morning, Pope Francis met with a group of refugees and migrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan at the Vatican.
Among the refugees who met with the pope was Bidong, who spent much of his childhood from the age of 9 onwards in a refugee camp in Ethiopia after fleeing the war in his home of South Sudan.
Bidong is currently studying International Developmental Cooperation at Rome’s Sapienza University and receives support from Centro Astalli, the Italian branch of the Jesuit Refugee Service.
He is one of 2.3 million displaced refugees from South Sudan, over half of whom are children, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
In an interview with ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner, a spokesperson for the Centro Astalli shared that nine of the refugees that the center works with in Rome were able to meet the pope at his residence at the Casa Santa Marta in Vatican City on Jan. 31.
Cedric, a Congolese refugee, lives in Rome with his wife and three young children. He was an actor and human rights activist who was jailed for his civil activism in Kinshasa before seeking asylum in Italy, according to the Centro Astalli.
Two of the young migrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo have albinism, a condition that affects the pigmentation of the skin and has been a cause of violent discrimination in the Congo.
“It was a significant moment before a trip in which, once again, Pope Francis focused on the existential and geographical peripheries of the world, crisis areas from which thousands of people flee every day in search of salvation,” the Centro Astalli representative said.
The suffering of migrants and refugees was still on the mind of the pope as he traveled to the first leg of his journey to Africa, the Congolese capital of Kinshasa.
While on board the papal flight to Kinshasa, which departed Rome’s Fiumicino International Airport at 8:29 a.m. with more than 70 journalists, Pope Francis asked everyone on the plane to spend a moment in silent prayer thinking of those who cross the Sahara Desert seeking a better life.
“Right now we are crossing the Sahara. Let’s spend a short moment in silence, a prayer for all the people who, looking for a little bit of comfort, a little bit of freedom, have crossed and did not make it,” Pope Francis said.
“So many suffering people who arrive at the Mediterranean and after having crossed the desert are caught in the camps and suffer there. We pray for all those people.”
Pope Francis also expressed disappointment that he was unable on this trip to visit Goma, a city in eastern Congo, due to the ongoing violence.
The violence in eastern Congo has created a severe humanitarian crisis with more than 5.5 million people displaced from their homes, the third-highest number of internally displaced people in the world.
The pope is scheduled to meet with victims of violence from eastern Congo on Feb. 1 in Kinshasa following a Mass that is expected to draw 2 million people.
South Sudan’s security situation also poses significant challenges to the papal trip. The U.N. reported last month that an escalation in violent clashes in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state had killed 166 people and displaced more than 20,000 since August.
Pope Francis will visit Kinshasa Jan. 31-Feb. 3 before traveling to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, Feb. 3-5.
The pope is scheduled to arrive in the Democratic Republic of Congo at 3 p.m. local time after a nearly seven-hour flight traveling more than 3,350 miles, a route that will fly over eight countries: Italy, Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, and the Republic of the Congo.
Upon landing in Kinshasa, Pope Francis will meet with President Felix Tshisekedi and address the DRC’s civil authorities in a speech at the Palais de la Nation.
The pope’s trip to Congo and South Sudan is Pope Francis’ third visit to sub-Saharan Africa. At the end of his 40th apostolic journey this week, the pope will have visited 60 countries.