Thousands of well-wishers are expected at Kinshasa's international airport to greet the 86-year-old pope

Vatican City (AFP) - Pope Francis embarked on his fifth visit to Africa on Tuesday, flying to the Democratic Republic of Congo and then South Sudan to plead for peace in the two violence-plagued nations.

The 86-year-old pope boarded the papal plane via elevator before it took off from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport at 8:28 local time (7:28 GMT). It is expected to arrive around 3:00 pm local time at Kinshasa’s Ndjili airport, where thousands of well-wishers are expected to greet the pontiff.

It is the first time since 1985 that a pope has visited DRC, a desperately poor country of close to 100 million people, 40 percent of whom are Catholic.

The six-day trip to DRC and South Sudan was originally planned for July 2022, but 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, and the Vatican scrapped an original plan to visit Goma in DR Congo’s east, where dozens of armed groups operate.

“I greet with affection those beloved peoples who await me,” Pope Francis said after his Angelus prayer at St Peter’s Square on Sunday.

It is the first time since 1985 that a pope has visited the Democratic Republic of Congo

“These lands, situated in the centre of the great African continent, have suffered greatly from lengthy conflicts.”

He lamented “armed clashes and exploitation” in DR Congo, and said South Sudan, “wracked by years of war, longs for an end to the constant violence”.

Despite its vast mineral wealth, some two-thirds of DRC’s population live on less than $2.15 a day, while violence plagues the eastern provinces.

The Tutsi-led armed group M23, which Kinshasa alleges is backed by neighbouring Rwanda, has been conquering large swaths of territory in North Kivu province.

The region has also seen a wave of deadly attacks blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a group the Islamic State claims as an affiliate, including a bomb blast at a Pentecostal church this month that killed 14 people.

- Victims of violence -

Following a welcome ceremony at the Kinshasa airport, Francis will be received at the presidential palace by President Felix Tshisekedi.

The trip to DRC and South Sudan was planned for July 2022, but postponed due to the pontiff's knee pain that has forced him to use a wheelchair

The Argentine pontiff will then make his first of a dozen speeches during the trip, addressing authorities, the diplomatic corps and representatives of civil society.

“He can deliver a strong message to politicians by addressing the issue of corruption” ahead of a general election scheduled for December, said Samuel Pommeret with Catholic humanitarian group CCFD-Terre Solidaire, which operates in the area.

Tens of thousands of people are expected to attend a prayer vigil Tuesday evening at N’dolo airport ahead of a mass on Wednesday morning, which is tipped to draw more than a million faithful.

Papal memorabilia was already selling well in Kinshasa in the run-up to the visit, with Elisabeth Akwete, 66, among those buying a calendar bearing the image of Francis.

“It’s a joy to have the image of the head of the Church at home,” she told AFP.

During his visit to DRC, the pope will also meet victims of violence as well as members of the clergy and charities operating in the country.

- Pilgrimage of peace -

On Friday, Francis will travel to the South Sudan capital of Juba, one of the world’s poorest countries that has lurched from one crisis to another since gaining independence in 2011.

Preparations for the pope's visit have been in full swing at Kinshasa's Notre Dame du Congo Cathedral

It suffered a brutal five-year civil war, while continued conflict between rival ethnic groups exacts a terrible toll on civilians.

The pope will be joined in Juba by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the leader of the Church of Scotland.

“Together, as brothers, we will make an ecumenical pilgrimage of peace, to entreat God and men to bring an end to the hostilities and for reconciliation,” the pope said on Sunday.