KINSHASA – Pope Francis led Congo’s young people in a rousing denunciation of political corruption on Thursday, turning an otherwise scripted meeting with church catechists into a rally that shook the capital’s sports stadium.
Francis was repeatedly interrupted as some of the 65,000 people in Kinshasa’s Martyrs’ Stadium took up his call to say “No” to corruption and turned it into a demand for Congo's president to not run for a second term in elections later this year.
The Argentine pope often uses his foreign trips to denounce corruption, particularly in meeting with young people in hopes that future generations will resist the temptation to make dishonest deals for personal gain. The issue is particularly dear to Francis, who wrote a book on the issue and likes to say that corruption is far worse than sin.
He continued that tradition on Thursday in Kinshasa, denouncing the “cancer of corruption” as he called for Congolese to create an honest future for themselves and their families.
“If someone offers you an envelope with a bribe, or promises you favors and lots of money, do not fall into the trap. Do not be deceived! Do not be sucked into the swamp of evil!” Francis said to cheers.
Transparency International ranks Congo 166th out of 180 on its corruption perception index, finding a direct correlation between political corruption and the high level of insecurity in the country. Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi says his administration is committed to fighting corruption, has denied any wrongdoing and has blamed foreign powers for the decades of violence in the east by rebels and armed militia groups.
Taking up Francis' call, the audience broke into a chant in the Lingala language directed at the country’s president, thundering that his mandate was over.
The pope clearly seemed to enjoy the enthusiasm, even if he needed his interpreter to explain hat the crowd was chanting.
More than two-thirds of Congo’s population of around 100 million is under age 25, and the United Nations and humanitarian organizations have said the country’s youth were particularly vulnerable to abuses amid the fighting in the east of the country which has forced more than 5 million to flee their homes.
Some in the stadium on Thursday said the lack of jobs in Congo fueled the conflict since there are few other options for young people to earn money legitimately.
“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,” said Kavira Shukuru, 26.
“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.
Tshisekedi, who is up for reelection at the end of the year, took office just over four years ago, starting what many had hoped would be a new era after the 18-year tenure of his predecessor. However, critics say Tshisekedi’s government hasn't done enough to improve living conditions in Congo, where many remain desperately poor despite the country’s vast mineral riches.
A top presidential adviser resigned in September amid a scandal over a mining deal. Opponents also have accused the president of giving bonuses to legislators and aides.
Emery Kalo, 27, said the government was doing what it could but that Congo's young people needed more opportunities to find work and receive adequate training and education.
“It is because of the lack of employment that many young people indulge in delinquency and other depravities,” Kalo said. Dreaming of the future, Kalo said he would like to see a Congo where the government guarantees security, justice, work and health care.
“I would like to see the Congo embody its role in the middle of Africa, taking advantage of our resources by transforming them here locally,” Kalo said.
Later Thursday, Francis met with Congo's priests and nuns at the capital's Notre Dame Cathedral and repeated his appeal to avoid the temptations of corruption, vice and material comfort.
“It is scandalous when this happens in the life of a priest or sister, for they should instead be models of sobriety and inner freedom,” he said, urging religious figures to live honest, Christian lives — including honoring their vows of celibacy.
Outside the cathedral, advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse staged a small protest, holding up signs urging Francis to use his trip to meet with survivors. Signs also urged him to apply the church law that punishes bishops who cover up abuse.
Benjamin Kitobo, a 55-year-old Congolese survivor who now lives in the United States, called for accountability to stop abuse in the church.
“If he does not help the Africans, that will continue in the dark for many years,” he said.
Yesica Fisch contributed. ___
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