By Minaz Kerawala, Communications and Public Relations Advisor
February 4 is observed as the International Day of Human Fraternity. Instituted by a United Nations resolution, the observance is strongly associated with the vision and leadership of Pope Francis.
A landmark document
In 2019, the Holy Father and His Eminence Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, issued the historic Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. It was conceived as “a sign of the closeness between East and West, between North and South, and between all who believe that God has created us to understand one another, cooperate with one another and live as brothers and sisters.”
In his message for today, UN secretary general António Guterres hailed the document as “a model for interfaith harmony and human solidarity“ and invited “us all [to] take inspiration” from it.
A fitting follow-up
Once again on this most meaningful day, Pope Francis is showing the way, exhorting us to “work to promote a culture of peace that encourages sustainable development, tolerance, inclusion, mutual understanding and solidarity.”
Last summer, he had told the people of South Sudan that he knew they were “weary of violence and poverty” and that he would support reconciliation “by making an ecumenical pilgrimage” with his “dear brothers, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.”
Keeping his word, the pope is now in the country with the Most Rev. Justin Welby and the Right Rev. Iain Greenshields. His pilgrimage is the latest in a series of Church peacebuilding efforts.
In April 2019, the Holy Father had kissed the feet of South Sudan’s warring leaders and begged them to cooperate. Later that year, the country’s Catholic bishops had written an open letter calling for the peace process to focus on the people’s needs.
For supporters of Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada, this pilgrimage of peace is particularly poignant, given that our work in the country began with its very birth in 2011. Over the years, our partners have provided food, water and hygiene supplies; livelihood support; conflict resolution training; vocational training; and support for victims of gender-based violence to tens of thousands in South Sudan.
A clarion call
Even more resonant for us is the sharp rebuke Pope Francis issued just four days ago, thundering, “Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered.”
These words address the self-serving geopolitical and economic powers of our world. They express, with more moral courage and authority than we ever can, the theme and thought that underpin our upcoming Stand for the Land campaign of solidarity with human and territorial rights defenders.
An enduring engagement
For us, the location and timing of the message are as significant as its content. Through its partners, Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada has had a presence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since the 1970s.
More recently, our efforts in the DRC have included a multi-year project with the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo (CENCO). Funded for $9.778 million by Global Affairs Canada, the ambitious project trained 10,000 civic and electoral education facilitators; delivered 900,000 workshops on democracy, rights, citizenship and community living; and produced local-language content on civic issues on 80 radio stations for an estimated total audience of 10 million.
Currently, we are supporting Caritas Kilwa Kasenga for an inclusive governance project that empowers women through literacy and rights training. The project is also supported by the popular 1% Program of the Catholic Women’s League of Canada.
Talks are underway with CENCO for another project focused on the political inclusion of women through various civic education activities aimed at dismantling the educational, cultural and economic barriers to women’s participation.
These past, present and planned projects, along with the attention and enthusiasm that Pope Francis’s visit have brought to the DRC, have all assumed even more significance in the lead-up to the country’s general elections at the end of 2023.
A hurt yet hopeful country
In the DRC, much hope rides on those elections because, as Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, the Archbishop of Kinshasa, said in an interview to Radio France International, “The country is in danger first of all because the people, the Congolese people ― they are a people ― are surviving; not living but surviving. There is a general feeling that the country, the people, have been abandoned.” He added, “The Catholic Church has seen this for a very long time and has never stopped denouncing it.”
Some of those “abandoned” people had their say before Pope Francis, who heard the testimonies of several victims of violence. Overcoming the unspeakable violence that had been inflicted on her, a 17-year-old survivor of rape said, “The Church remains the only refuge that binds our wounds and consoles our hearts through its many services of support and comfort: The parishes and the services of the diocesan Caritas remain our places of recourse and help.”
Such is the salve and spark that Pope Francis is bringing to the country. CENCO’s president Cardinal Marcel Utembi told Vatican News, “This visit will rekindle the hope of the Congolese people who are waiting for the restoration of peace and security in the country and in the subregion.”
We invite you to follow this landmark papal visit on Vatican News and to continue supporting the fulfilment of Pope Francis’s prayer: “May Africa be the protagonist of its own destiny!”