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Nicole Winfield
Associated Press

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

The Vatican said the July 2-7 trip to Congo and South Sudan would be rescheduled "to a later date to be determined."

"At the request of his doctors, and in order not to jeopardize the results of the therapy that 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 has been using a wheelchair for a month due to strained ligaments in his right knee that have made walking and standing difficult and painful. He has refused so far to get surgery, and has instead received injections, kept the knee as immobile as possible and walked with a cane or the help of an aide.

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

Francis had been due to visit South Sudan with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the Church of Scotland to make a joint, ecumenical appeal for peace. Such a trip had been discussed as early as 2017 but security concerns kept postponing it.

The Rev. John Gbemyoro, an official with the Sudan and South Sudan Catholic Bishops' Conference, said Friday's news dashed expectations of Christians in both countries.

"We don't love to hear it," Gbemyoro told The Associated Press. "But we are asking God to heal him quickly because we still need him to come to South Sudan."

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

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

The Congolese government said it wished Francis a prompt recovery and assured him that Congo still awaits him "for his visit under the sign of peace and reconciliation in Jesus Christ."

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In the eastern city of Goma, where Francis had been due to spend the day on July 4, thousands of posters with Francis' image already had been put up to advertise the visit. The Hotel New Grand Lac had already booked rooms for people who planned to spend up to as many as four days, manager Jacques Ndayango said.

"We estimate a loss of around $5,000," he said, adding that he hoped the pope would come later this year.

Martha Mwavit, a member of the Saint-Esprit Parish choir, said the singers had spent two months rehearsing songs for the papal Mass in Goma. The Catholic faithful in Congo now 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 said.

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

The spokesman for the papal trip in Canada, Neil MacCarthy, said planning for the trip continued. The pontiff is scheduled to personally apologize to Indigenous peoples in Canada for abuses at residential schools.

"Great care is being taken to provide significant periods of rest for the Holy Father, and also to ensure his participation at events is for a limited period of time (in most cases about one hour)," MacCarthy said in an email to The Associated Press. "We continue to pray for the health of Pope Francis and that he will be able to 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 to plan for Francis' visit and reported no signals about a possible cancellation.

The pope has told friends he doesn't want to undergo knee surgery, reportedly because of his reaction to anesthesia when he had 13 inches of his large intestine removed in July 2021.

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

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

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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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