Pope Francis urged Congo's young people to work for a peaceful and honest future on Thursday, directing himself to a generation that has been particularly hard hit by the country's chronic conflict and getting a raucous response when he acknowledged the corruption that threatens their prospects.
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.
Pulsing in the stands, the crowd repeatedly interrupted the pope and cheered 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.
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 east.
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. "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.
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.
Congolese President Felix 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 citizens 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.
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