Pope Francis arrives for mass in Kinshasa during his Africa visit

Kinshasa (AFP) - A huge crowd of singing and dancing worshippers turned out to attend a papal mass in DR Congo’s capital Wednesday, on the second day of Pope Francis’s visit to the conflict-torn country.

Many tens of thousands of people flocked to the tarmac of Kinshasa’s N’Dolo airport for the open-air mass, which is due to begin at 9:30 am local time (0830 GMT).

Many of the faithful in the deeply observant megacity of some 15 million people began to arrive at the airport on Tuesday night to assure themselves of a spot.

Adrien Louka, 55, told AFP he had arrived before dawn.

“As our country has many problems, it is reconciliation that we are looking for and the Pope will give a message so that the countries around us leave us in peace,” added the man, who was sporting a colourful shirt bearing the logo of the papal visit.

As crowds poured into the airport under a bright sun and heavy security, 700 choir singers rehearsed in a festive atmosphere, while worshippers danced and waved flags.

The 86-year-old pontiff had arrived in the DRC on Tuesday, on the first leg of a six-day trip to Africa that will also include troubled South Sudan.

Huge crowds had also thronged the streets for a glimpse of the popemobile as Francis drove past.

A former Belgian colony the size of continental western Europe, the DRC is Africa’s most Catholic country.

About 40 percent of the population of some 100 million people follows the church of Rome, according to estimates.

Another 35 percent of the population is Protestant of various denominations, nine percent is Muslim and 10 percent Kimbanguist – a Christian movement born in the Belgian Congo.

Pope Frances is expected to draw even bigger crowds on the second day of his visit

Official Vatican statistics put the proportion of Catholics in the DRC at 49 percent of the population.

During a speech to politicians and dignitaries in Kinshasa’s presidential palace on Tuesday, Francis denounced the “economic colonialism” he suggested had wreaked lasting damage in the DRC.

“This country, massively plundered, has not benefited adequately from its immense resources,” he said, to applause.

Despite abundant mineral reserves, the DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world. About two-thirds of Congolese people live on less than $2.15 a day, according to the World Bank.

- Meeting conflict victims -

Kinshasa residents clamoured for a glimpse of the popemobile after Francis' arrival

Francis is also due to meet victims of the conflict in eastern Congo in Kinshasa on Wednesday following the mega-mass.

After that, he will talk to representatives from charitable organisations.

The DRC’s turbulent east has long been plagued by dozens of armed groups. Since late 2021, M23 rebels have also captured swaths of territory in the eastern North Kivu province, coming close to its capital Goma.

The trip to DRC and South Sudan had originally been planned for July 2022, but it was postponed due to the pontiff’s knee pain that has forced him in recent months to use a wheelchair.

Security concerns were also said to play a role in delaying the trip, and a stop in Goma – a city of over a million people on the border with Rwanda – is no longer on the itinerary.

“I would have liked to go to Goma too, but with the war, you can’t go there,” Francis told reporters on the plane on the way to DRC.

The Argentine pontiff, in his speech in Kinshasa on Tuesday, urged the need to address the conflict and said he supported regional peace efforts.

Francis also underlined the need for investment in education, and free-and-fair elections, among other issues.

On Friday, the pope travels to South Sudan’s capital Juba.

The current foreign papal visit is Francis’s 40th since being elected in 2013.