Pope Francis watches Kenyan circus artists perform during his weekly general audience at the Vatican on Wednesday

Vatican City (AFP) - Pope Francis will visit the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan early next year, a trip previously postponed due to problems with his knee, the Vatican said Thursday.

The 85-year-old pontiff will visit Kinshasa during his trip to DRC from January 31 to February 3, before heading to Juba in South Sudan from February 3 to 5.

On the second leg, 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.

It will be the pontiff’s fifth visit to the African continent since being elected head of the worldwide Catholic church in 2013.

The trip was initially planned for July this year but was postponed “at the request of his doctors”, the Vatican said at the time, as the pope underwent treatment for knee pain.

There had also been concerns about security in visiting two countries plagued by violence, according to Italian media reports.

- Commitment to peace -

South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, has suffered from chronic instability since independence in 2011, including a brutal five-year civil war.

The Vatican has been directly involved in efforts to end the conflict, with Pope Francis himself kissing the feet of rival leaders Salva Kiir and Riek Machar in an extraordinary moment in 2019.

It was at the same retreat that he agreed to go to South Sudan with the archbishop and the moderator.

The Church of Scotland said that during the visit to Juba, the three men would “meet local church representatives, civil war victims living in a displaced persons camp and lead a large open-air prayer vigil for peace”.

“The purpose of the visit is to renew a commitment to peace and reconciliation and stand in solidarity with millions of ordinary people who are suffering profoundly from continued armed conflict, violence, floods and famine,” it said.

Archbishop of Canterbury Welby said the three religious leaders “share a deep desire to stand in solidarity with the people of South Sudan”.

- Programme reduced -

The DRC, which Pope John Paul II visited in 1985, is struggling to contain dozens of armed groups in the east of the vast nation.

The pope – who in recent months has used a wheelchair – had initially planned to visit Goma, in the war-torn east of DRC, but this stop has been removed from the new programme.

The DRC is struggling to contain dozens of armed groups in the east of the vast nation

Carlos Ndaka, auxiliary bishop of Kinshasa, told AFP he welcomed the visit of pope “with great joy”.

However, “it hurts us very much that for security reasons the pope cannot go to Goma, for a visit to comfort our brothers who suffer because of the war”, he said.

Instead, the pontiff will meet with victims from the east in Kinshasa.

About 40 percent of the estimated 100 million inhabitants of DRC are Catholic. Another 35 percent are Protestant or affiliated to Christian revivalist churches, nine percent are Muslim, and 10 percent follow the Kimbanguist Congolese church.

The country has a secular government, but religion is omnipresent in most people’s lives and the Catholic Church has at times played a leading role in local politics.

The pope’s trip will be the 40th abroad of his papacy.