KINSHASA, Congo -- Pope Francis demanded Tuesday that foreign powers stop plundering Africa's natural resources for the "poison of their own greed" as he arrived in Congo to a raucous welcome by Congolese grateful he was focusing the world's attention on their forgotten plight.
Tens of thousands of people lined the main road into the capital, Kinshasa, to welcome Francis after he landed at the airport, with children in school uniforms taking the front row.
Francis plunged headfirst into his agenda upon arrival, denouncing the centuries-long exploitation of Africa by colonial powers, today's multinational extraction industries and the neighboring countries interfering in Congo's affairs that has led to a surge in fighting in the east.
"Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa!" Francis said to applause in his opening speech to Congolese government authorities and the diplomatic corps in the garden of Kinshasa's national palace.
Calling Congo's vast mineral and natural wealth a "diamond of creation," Francis demanded that foreign interests stop carving up the country for their own interests and acknowledge their role in the economic "enslavement" of the Congolese people.
The six-day trip, which also includes a stop in South Sudan, was originally scheduled for July, but was postponed because of Francis' knee problems. It was also supposed to have included a stop in Goma, in eastern Congo, but the surrounding North Kivu region has been plagued by intense fighting between government troops and the M23 rebel group, as well as attacks by militants linked to the Islamic State group.
The fighting has displaced some 5.7 million people, according to the World Food Program.
Instead of traveling there, Francis will meet with a delegation of people from the east who will travel to Kinshasa for a private encounter at the Vatican embassy today. The plan calls for them to participate in a ceremony jointly committing to forgive their assailants.
President Felix Tshisekedi, in his speech to the pope, accused the international community of forgetting about Congo and of its complicit "inaction and silence" about the atrocities occurring in the east.
"In addition to armed groups, foreign powers eager for the minerals in our subsoil commit cruel atrocities with the direct and cowardly support of our neighbor Rwanda, making security the first and greatest challenge for the government," he said.
Rwanda has been accused of -- and has repeatedly denied -- backing the M23 rebels operating in Congo.
Africa is one of the only places on Earth where the Catholic flock is growing, both in terms of practicing faithful and fresh vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Congo stands out as half of its 105 million people are Catholic, the country counts more than 6,000 priests, 10,000 nuns and more than 4,000 seminarians -- 3.6% of the global total of young men studying for the priesthood.
Aid groups had hoped Francis' six-day visit would shine a spotlight on the forgotten conflicts of Congo and South Sudan and their soaring humanitarian costs, and rekindle international attention amid donor fatigue that has set in due to new aid priorities in Ukraine.
Francis pointed the finger at the role colonial powers such as Belgium played in the exploitation of Congo until the country gained its independence in 1960, and neighboring countries are playing today.
Francis didn't identify Belgium or any neighboring country by name, but he spared no word of condemnation, quoting Tshisekedi as saying there was a "forgotten genocide" under way.
"The poison of greed has smeared its diamonds with blood," Francis said. "May the world acknowledge the catastrophic things that were done over the centuries to the detriment of the local peoples."
"We cannot grow accustomed to the bloodshed that has marked this country for decades, causing millions of deaths that remain mostly unknown elsewhere," he said.
At the same time, he urged Congolese authorities to work for the common good and put an end to child labor and invest in education so that "the most precious diamonds" of Congo can shine brightly.
Congolese faithful were flocking to Kinshasa for Francis' main event, a Mass today at Ndolo airport that is expected to draw as many as 2 million people in one of the biggest gatherings of its kind in Congo and one of Francis' biggest Masses ever.
Information for this article was contributed by Christina Malkia and Krista Larson of The Associated Press.