KINSHASA, Congo (CNS) -- The people of Congo are more precious than any of the gems or minerals found in the earth beneath their feet, yet they have been slaughtered by warmongers and exploited by prospectors, Pope Francis said.
"This country, so immense and full of life, this diaphragm of Africa, struck by violence like a blow to the stomach, has seemed for some time to be gasping for breath," the pope said Jan. 31 at a meeting with Congo's President Felix Tshisekedi, other government and political leaders, diplomats and representatives of civil society.
Poverty, internal displacement, crime and violence plague the Congolese people. The United Nations and human rights organizations say more than 100 armed groups are operating in the country, sowing terror particularly in the east.
Yet, according to the U.S. State Department country report, for Africa "regional stability and security is dependent on durable peace" in Congo, "the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa," one bordering nine other nations and home to diamonds and vast mineral reserves. It also has the largest Catholic population in Africa and has the sixth most Catholics of any nation after Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, the United States and Italy.
Tens of thousands of people lined the streets from the airport to the city center, cheering as the pope passed by in the popemobile. Many children and teens were dressed in their school uniforms, parishioners proudly held banners welcoming the pope in the name of their communities and many of the women wore brightly colored cotton dresses with images of the pope.
Speaking to several hundred leaders in the garden of the Palais de la Nation, his official residence, President Tshisekedi told the pope that the welcome and harmony that had characterized Congo for centuries has, in the past 30 years, "been undermined by the enemies of peace as well as terrorist groups, mainly from neighboring countries."
"Indeed," he told the pope, with "the inaction and silence of the international community, more than 10 million people have had been their lives taken from them atrociously. Innocent women, even pregnant ones, are raped and disemboweled, young people and children have their throats slit, families, the elderly and children are condemned to brave fatigue and exhaustion, wandering far from their homes in search of peace because of the atrocities committed by these terrorists in the service of foreign interests," who want to exploit the countries natural resources.
Pope Francis, responding to the president, added that Congo is suffering from a "forgotten genocide," one the world must recognize.
Returning to his prepared text, the pope chose diamonds as the key image in his first speech in Congo, insisting that "you, all of you, are infinitely more precious than any treasure found in this fruitful soil!"
In a speech frequently interrupted by applause and shouts of "Amen," the pope urged the Congolese people to demand the respect they deserve; he pleaded with the country's political leaders to put the common good ahead of greed and a lust for power; and he begged the international community to help Congo, not plunder it.
"Diamonds are usually rare," he said, "yet here they are abundant."
"If that is true of the material wealth hidden in the soil, it is even more true of the spiritual wealth present within your hearts," he said. "For it is from hearts that peace and development are born, because, with God's help, men and women are capable of justice and of forgiveness, of concord and reconciliation, of commitment and perseverance in putting to good use the many talents they have received."
Every person in Congo has a part to play, Pope Francis insisted.
"May violence and hatred no longer find room in the heart or on the lips of anyone, since these are inhuman and un-Christian sentiments that arrest development and bring us back to a gloomy past," he said.
Referencing both the loss of life and the term for diamonds mined to finance conflict, the pope said that "the poison of greed has smeared (Congo's) diamonds with blood."
The developed world, he said, "often closes its eyes, ears and mouth" to the tragedy occurring in Congo while greedily buying up coltan, a mineral used in mobile phones, and other natural resources from the country.
"Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa," Pope Francis insisted to applause and the stopping of feet. "Stop choking Africa: it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered."
At the same, the pope did not let the Congolese off the hook, especially those who promote members of their own ethnic group or political party to the detriment of their neighbors, "thus nurturing spirals of hatred and violence."
"From a chemical standpoint, it is interesting that diamonds are made up of simple atoms of carbon which, if differently bonded, form graphite: in effect, the difference between the brilliance of the diamond and the darkness of graphite comes from the way the individual atoms are arranged," he said.
Different ethnic groups or cultural traditions do not create tension automatically, but it depends on people and the way they choose to live together, the pope said. "Their willingness or not to encounter one another, to be reconciled and to start anew makes the difference between the grimness of conflict and a radiant future of peace and prosperity."
Pope Francis also called for greater respect for the environment, including the Congo rainforest, second in size only to the Amazon. The pope called it "one of the great green lungs of the world."
But, he said, efforts to protect it must be carried out in cooperation with the people who live there and rely on it for their livelihoods.