Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday named a scholar who served as a Vatican diplomat as the US envoy to Africas Great Lakes region, filling a position aimed at encouraging stability in the conflict-ridden area.

J. Peter Pham, now a vice president at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, will focus on "strengthening democratic institutions and civil society," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

He will also work to encourage "the safe and voluntary return of the region's refugees and internally displaced persons," she said, amid renewed tensions in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The appointment comes ahead of December 23 presidential elections that are seen as critical for the future of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the sprawling nation that has never experienced a peaceful transition of power.

Pham will fill a role empty for a year since the departure of Larry Wohlers, a veteran US diplomat who held a similar role as special coordinator for the Great Lakes.

Pham holds a doctorate from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and later served as a diplomat for the Vatican around Africa and in the Philippines, according to James Madison University, where he is an associate professor.

He was formerly a vice president of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, a group of scholars founded by two of the most prominent academics to support the US invasion of Iraq, Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis.

Atlantic Council president Frederick Kempe congratulated Pham, crediting him with producing "cutting-edge projects" about Africa.

"It's difficult to imagine anyone with deeper subject-matter expertise on the challenges faced by Africans or US ties with the countries of the African Great Lakes," Kempe said.