By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) -Pope Francis is set to make a gruelling trip to two African countries in July despite knee problems that have forced him to use a cane and wheelchair in recent weeks.
The Vatican issued a full programme on Saturday for the July 2-7 trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. There had been speculation the pope’s visit to Africa might be postponed, as was a trip to Lebanon scheduled for June.
The 85-year-old pope has been undergoing treatment for knee pain, believed to be caused by a torn ligament.
The trip’s pace suggests the Vatican expects the pope’s condition to improve in the next month, although officials say privately that he likely will use a wheelchair at least some of the time. The visit includes thousands of miles of travel, five flights and at least a dozen speeches.
Francis will spend four days in the Democratic Republic of Congo, visiting the capital Kinshasa and Goma in the restive eastern region.
The Italian ambassador, his bodyguard and driver were killed in an ambush north of Goma last year.
The government has declared a state of siege and placed some provinces under martial law to tackle armed groups carrying out attacks in the region. They include Islamic State-linked ADF.
The programme includes a meeting with victims of violence in the eastern area of the country.
The July 5-7 stop in Juba, capital of South Sudan, is a visit that has repeatedly been delayed because of security concerns.
South Sudan is predominantly Christian and Francis is making the South Sudan leg together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. It will be the first joint visit of its kind by leaders of Roman Catholic, Anglican and Reformed traditions.
July marks the 11th anniversary of South Sudan’s secession from Sudan. Civil war erupted two years later in 2013, causing 400,000 deaths. The two main sides signed a peace deal in 2018 but hunger and deadly clashes are still common across the world’s youngest country.
A 2018 peace deal in South Sudan halted the worst violence of that war, but analysts say there are several unresolved issues, such as stalled reunification of the national army, that could plunge the country back into widespread conflict.
In 2019 Francis hosted South Sudan’s opposing leaders, including President Salva Kiir and his rival, Vice President Riek Machar, at a Vatican retreat where he knelt and kissed their feet as he urged them not to return to conflict.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Christina Fincher)