Pope Francis plans to visit Congo and South Sudan in July

Francis is scheduled to visit the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, and the eastern city of Goma on July 2-5, and plans to be in Juba, South Sudan, from July 5-7, the Vatican said Thursday.

The trip would be one of Francis’ longest in years and his third to sub-Saharan Africa. He visited Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic in 2015, and Mozambique, Mauritius and Madagascar in 2019. Francis also visited Egypt in 2017.

The trip will certainly test the 85-year-old Pontiff’s stamina and mobility. He had 33 centimeters (13 inches) of his large intestine removed and spent 10 days in the hospital last July. This week, the pope canceled two events because of acute pain in his knee that makes walking and standing painful.

Francis, who has long suffered from sciatica nerve pain, has said he strained a ligament in his right knee. The Vatican explained his cancellation of a day trip to Florence and his absence from Ash Wednesday services by saying his doctors had prescribed a period of rest to allow the knee to heal.

The only other foreign trip the Vatican has confirmed for this year is an April 2-3 visit to Malta.

Francis has wanted to visit South Sudan for years, but security concerns prevented him from going there, including for a joint visit with the Archbishop of Canterbury. A spokesman for Archbishop Justin Welby told The Associated Press on Thursday: “I can confirm that the Archbishop of Canterbury will join the pope in South Sudan.”

In 2019, the pope invited South Sudan’s rival leaders to the Vatican for an Easter summit, stunning onlookers when he knelt down and kissed their feet in a humble plea for peace.

The Catholic Church in Congo, meanwhile, has long been a powerful voice in the heavily Catholic nation, and it deployed some 40,000 electoral observers in the 2019 election that brought Felix Tshisekedi to the presidency.

Tshisekedi, an opposition figure, defeated then-president Joseph Kabila’s chosen candidate in what was Congo’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence from Belgium in 1960.

Jill Lawless contributed from London.

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