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Pope Francis begins a much anticipated trip to 2 countries in Africa

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Pope Francis begins his much-anticipated trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan today. For the Vatican, this trip is seen as an opportunity to focus on the long, drawn-out conflicts that have torn these two countries apart. But it also is an acknowledgment of the importance that Africa plays in the Catholic Church and its future. Our correspondent Emmanuel Akinwotu joins us from Lagos, Nigeria. So how important is this visit for the Vatican and for the pope?

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Good morning, and hugely. You know, this is where the church sees much of its future. Twenty percent of the world's 1.4 billion Catholics are here on the continent, and it's the fastest growing part of the Catholic Church. And as it grows, it's going to have a greater sway on its identity. You know, anyone who's attended mass in the West and here in many parts of Africa knows that Catholicism here usually brings a different energy and sense of spirituality. Then specifically with the Democratic Republic of Congo, close to half of its people - 95 million people - are Catholics. And for many people, the church functions like the states. DRC has the highest number of Catholic health centers in Africa, and its bishops have a lot of social and political influence. So the conflicts there and in South Sudan are really at the core of this visit. And the pope has called this his pilgrimage of peace.

MARTÍNEZ: So what kind of an impact do you think his presence will likely have on both countries?

AKINWOTU: I mean, it's a box office moment. You know, thousands of people have been gradually arriving into the capital from other cities and townships to see him and hopefully attend mass. His trip to the DRC will be the first papal visit since Pope John Paul in 1985. The country was still called Zaire then and run by a dictator. So it's been a long time. He's going to be meeting victims of violence from Eastern DRC on Wednesday. And that really shines a light on the conflict there. The Tutsi-led M23 rebel group have been leading this bloody offensive and it risks sparking a war between Rwanda and the DRC. Then for South Sudan, it's going to be the first-ever papal visit to a really young country where Catholics are about 40% of people there. And South Sudan became independent in 2011 after, like, years of conflict. Then there was a civil war. And despite the 2018 peace deal, there's still a lot of unrest and a huge refugee crisis of about 2 million refugees.

MARTÍNEZ: The pope lately has made some statements that are - have been seen as progressive or more progressive than normal for a pope. How will those statements be taken in Africa?

AKINWOTU: It's complicated. You know, obviously, as you said, just last week, Pope Francis said that laws which criminalize homosexuality were unjust. And, you know - but the African church is more socially conservative on certain issues, such as around sexuality and divorce. And broadly, the clergy in Africa are not as fond of him maybe as they were of the more conservative predecessor, Pope Benedict. But at the same time, his more left-wing messages on the poor, the marginalized, on capitalism, on plundering mineral resources in Africa, these things resonate hugely here and are part of what make him to be more beloved.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu in Lagos, Nigeria. Thanks you.

AKINWOTU: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "HIGH SUNSET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.

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