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Associated Press

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has canceled a planned July trip to Africa on the orders of doctors due to ongoing knee problems, the Vatican said Friday, dashing the hopes of the faithful and raising new questions about health and mobility of the 85-year-old man. pontiff.

Vatican says July 2-7 trip to Congo and South Sudan will be postponed “at a later date to be determined.”

“At the request of his doctors, and in order not to compromise the results of the therapy he is undergoing for his knee, the Holy Father has been forced to postpone, with regret, his Apostolic Journey to the Democratic Republic of Congo and to South Sudan,” the Vatican said in a statement.

Francis used a wheelchair for about a month due to strained ligaments in his right knee that made walking and standing difficult and painful. So far he has refused surgery and instead received injections, kept the knee as still as possible and walked with a cane or the help of an assistant.

Questions had swirled for months about Francis’ ability to negotiate the trip to Africa, which would have been taxing for the pope even without the knee problems. Yet just this week plans for the trip continued, with the Vatican releasing the names of accredited journalists who were to fly on the papal plane.

Francis was due to travel to South Sudan with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the Church of Scotland to issue a joint ecumenical appeal for peace. Such a trip had been mentioned in 2017 but security concerns kept postponing it.

Reverend John Gbemyoro, an official with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sudan and South Sudan, said Friday’s news lowered the expectations of Christians in both countries.

“We don’t like to hear it” Gbemyoro told The Associated Press. “But we ask God to heal him quickly because we still need him to come to South Sudan.” He asked South Sudanese to continue to pray for the pontiff.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Church of Scotland Moderator Rt. Rev. Iain Greenshields said they were praying for Francis and regretted the trip was again postponed.

“I continue to pray for the people of South Sudan in their challenges and hopes for peace, and I look forward to this historic visit at a later date,” Welby tweeted.

The Congolese government said it wished François a speedy recovery and assured him that the Congo was still waiting for him. “for his visit under the sign of peace and reconciliation in Jesus Christ”.

In the eastern city of Goma, where Francis was to spend the day of July 4, thousands of posters bearing the image of Francis had already been put up.

Martha Mwavit, a member of the Holy Spirit parish choir, said the singers spent two months rehearsing songs for a papal mass. The Catholic faithful in the Congo can only pray for Francis to come.

“I am 74 years old and I don’t know if I will have the chance to sing in a mass given by the pope. I would like his health to recover so that I can have this chance before I die”, she says.

Francis has also planned a visit to Canada for July 24-30; the Vatican’s statement on Friday said nothing about that trip. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said only that the pope’s other commitments were confirmed.

Spokesman for the papal trip to Canada, Neil MacCarthy, said planning for the trip is continuing. The pontiff must personally apologize to the indigenous people of Canada for the abuses committed in residential schools.

“Great care is taken to provide significant rest periods for the Holy Father, and also to ensure that his participation in events is of limited duration (in most cases about an hour),” MacCarthy said in an email to The Associated Press. “We continue to pray for Pope Francis’ health and that he can join us in Canada next month.”

A Canadian official familiar with the trip, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Canadian organizers were in Rome this week planning Francis’ visit and reported no signs of a possible cancellation.

The pope has told friends he doesn’t want to have knee surgery, reportedly because of his reaction to anesthesia when he had 33 centimeters (13 inches) removed from his large intestine in July 2021.

Speculation has swirled about the future of the pontificate due to Francis’ knee problems, his decision to create 16 new voting-age cardinals in August and his intention to pay tribute the same month to a 13th-century pope who resigned, Celestine V.

But Francis has given no indication that he wants or plans to step down. Vatican watchers say a papal resignation now would be unthinkable given that Francis’ 95-year-old predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, is still alive.

Deng Machol in Juba, South Sudan, Al-Hadji Kudra Maliro in Goma, Congo, Robert Gillies in Toronto and Alessandra Tarantino in Vatican City contributed.

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Ruth R. Culp