By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Thursday denounced the murder of innocent women and children as the "horrid face" of war as he presided at a special prayer service for peace in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Francis had planned to go later this year to South Sudan, which has been hit by civil war, famine and a refugee crisis, but had to scrap the project for security reasons.
During the service, which was punctuated by African singing in English, French, Italian and Swahili, Francis asked God to "break down the walls of hostility that today divide brothers and sisters, especially in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo."
"May he protect children who suffer from conflicts in which they have no part, but which rob them of their childhood and at times of life itself," he said in his brief homily.
"How hypocritical it is to deny the mass murder of women and children! Here war shows its most horrid face," he said.
St. Peter's Basilica was decked out with photographs of African children.
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after protracted bloodshed, then fell into civil war in late 2013, with troops loyal to President Salva Kiir fighting those backing Riek Machar, a former vice president Kiir had sacked.
Both sides have targeted civilians, human rights groups say.
"Right now, we are moving into the lean season, and by July of 2018, many thousands of people across South Sudan – not just isolated pockets of the country – will be dying from hunger," said Jerry Farrell, country representative in South Sudan for
Catholic Relief Services.
"What is most tragic is there absolutely shouldn't be hunger in South Sudan," he said in an email, adding that people of different tribes inter-marry and work together but that the conflict is instigated and fanned by politicians.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, dozens of people have died in protests against President Joseph Kabila's refusal to step down at the end of his constitutional mandate last December.
Unrest sparked by the uncertainty surrounding the polls has raised fears Congo could witness a repeat of the kind of violence that killed millions around the turn of the last century, mostly from hunger and disease.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)