Pope Francis urged the young people of Congo to work for a peaceful and honest future this week, getting a raucous response from a generation that has been particularly hard-hit by the country’s chronic poverty, corruption and conflict.
Deafening cheers and chants greeted Francis on his last full day in Congo as he joined tens of thousands of young people at the Martyrs’ Stadium in the capital, Kinshasa. The Vatican said more than 65,000 people attended.
The crowd that pulsed in the stands repeatedly interrupted the pope, cheering especially loudly when Francis denounced the “cancer of corruption.” The audience broke into a chant in the Lingala language directed at the country’s president, thundering that his mandate was over.
Politics aside, the pope clearly seemed to enjoy the enthusiasm, egging the young people on and urging them at one point to hold hands in a sign of community.
“You see how it is to be in community, and be in one church?” he asked. “Your own well-being depends on the other.”
More than two-thirds of Congo’s population of around 100 million is under age 25. The United Nations and humanitarian organizations have said the country’s youth were particularly vulnerable to abuses as violence flares in the eas t.
Just this week, UNICEF demanded the release of a dozen children reportedly abducted during an attack in restive North Kivu province, and Save the Children raised alarm about the plight of children amid massive flows of displaced people fleeing the violence.
Closer to home, Francis urged the young in Kinshasa not to be tempted by drugs, corruption or quick-fix financial schemes or to be sucked into the violence tearing at eastern Congo.
“Do not be overcome by evil,” he said. “Do not let yourselves be manipulated by individuals or groups that try to use you to keep your country in the grip of violence and instability, so that they can continue to control it without answering to anyone.”
Violence has wracked eastern Congo for decades as more than 120 armed groups and self-defense militias fight for land and power. Nearly 6 million people are internally displaced, and hundreds of thousands face extreme food insecurity, according to the United Nations.
Some in the stadium on Thursday said the lack of jobs in Congo fueled the conflict since there are few other options for young men to earn money.
“We have the impression that our leaders do absolutely nothing to improve the living conditions of the population and that these leaders minimize the capacity of the youth to improve things,” Kavira Shukuru, a 26-year-old who was at the stadium said.
“And this situation is among the causes of the instability and insecurity that our country is experiencing. An unemployed youth is easily influenced and can easily join an armed group to earn a living or be influenced by a politician with bad intentions,” she said.
Transparency International ranks Congo 166 out of 180 on its corruption perception index, finding a direct correlation between political corruption and the high level of insecurity in the country.