Pope Francis listened as four victims of conflict recounted stories of rape and mutilation

Kinshasa (AFP) - Pope Francis slammed “brutal atrocities” committed in eastern DR Congo after hearing harrowing accounts of violence from the turbulent region during the second day of his visit to the conflict-torn country Wednesday.

At the Apostolic Nunciature in the Kinshasa, the Holy See’s diplomatic mission in the Congolese capital, Francis listened as four victims of conflict recounted stories of rape and mutilation.

Emelda M’karhungulu, one of the victims, told the pope that militants had held her as a sex slave for three months and forced her to eat human flesh.

“They made us eat corn paste with the meat of killed men,” she said.

One woman also held up her mutilated arms – both of her hands had been cut off – before the pontiff, who watched with a grave expression before giving an address.

Francis arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a deeply observant nation of some 100 million people, on Tuesday.

Worshippers gathered for the long-awaited mass

It is the first time since 1985 that a pope has visited the country, whose troubled east has been wracked by militia violence for decades.

After the victims’ testimony, Francis condemned the “inhumane violence” before an audience in the Nunciature and called for mercy from God.

“May he convert the hearts of those who carry out brutal atrocities, which bring shame upon all humanity,” the 86-year-old said.

He added that the conflict in mineral-rich eastern Congo was driven by greed, at the expense of innocent victims, and called on combatants to lay down their arms.

“Listen to the cry of their blood,” the pope said, alluding to a verse from the Book of Genesis.

- ‘Massively plundered’ -

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.

A man holds the DRC flag ahead of the mass at Ndolo airport

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.

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.

- Million-strong mass -

The second day of the pope’s visit to the DRC began on a brighter note, when over a million people braved scorching heat to hear the pontiff give a mass in Kinshasa’s Ndolo airport, according to an official estimate.

Around 40 percent of DRC's population of around 100 million is Catholic, according to estimates

Many of the gathered Catholic faithful had arrived in the early hours to grab a spot on the tarmac. Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, as well as leading opposition figures, also attended the open-air mass.

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,” he added, a sentiment echoed by other mass-goers.

Francis wished the crowd peace in Lingala, one of the DRC’s four national languages and the everyday language of Kinshasa.

The pope then delivered the rest of his homily in Italian – which was translated into the DRC’s official language French – in which he urged the faithful “not to give in to divisions”.

Fervour: A woman wears a dress emblazoned with a picture of the pope

Francis is due to meet representatives from charitable organisations later on Wednesday, and address young people in Kinshasa’s Stade des Martyrs the following day.

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

This visit is Francis’s 40th foreign trip since being elected in 2013.