More than one million people attended Pope Francis’ Mass in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Wednesday, the Vatican Press Office said, citing figures estimated by local authorities.
Francis’ trip to the DRC – the first papal visit since 1985 – comes at a time the African nation is beset by armed fighting and a worsening refugee crisis.
It is part of a six-day trip in the DRC and South Sudan – two countries where Catholics comprise about half of the population and the Church is a key stakeholder in health and education systems as well as in democracy-building efforts. Both countries have abundant natural resources, but are grappling with poverty and strife.
A CNN team on the ground witnessed crowds singing and dancing at N’Dolo Airport from the early hours of the morning, waiting for their first glimpse of the Pope, who toured the air field in an open Popemobile.
Francis spoke to attendees in his homily about peace and directly challenged those who wield weapons.
“May it be the right time for you, who in this country call yourself a Christian but commit violence,” Francis said. “To you the Lord says, ‘Put down your arms and embrace mercy.’”
“We Christians are called to cooperate with everyone, to break the cycle of violence, to dismantle the machinations of hatred,” the Pope said.
Francis said the population was suffering from “wounds that ache, continually infected by hatred and violence, while the medicine of justice and the balm of hope never seem to arrive,” according to Reuters.
Decades of militia violence have taken grip of the DRC, as state forces struggle to curb rebel groups. Conflict between government troops and the M23 rebel group, which seeks control of the country from its stronghold in eastern DRC, has left many dead and displaced thousands.
According to the UN World Food Programme, 26 million people in the DRC face severe hunger.
Francis met with victims of violence from the east during his visit, and said he was “left without words” after hearing their harrowing stories.
“We can only weep in silence,” the Pope said, as he thanked the victims for their courageous testimony.
He is scheduled to leave Kinshasa Friday for South Sudan’s capital, Juba, where he will be joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields.
CNN’s Nimi Princewill contributed reporting.