Catholic bishops in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are becoming targets weeks after the collapse of a church-led mediation process.
Clerics in the African nation say priests, nuns and other religious are being increasingly threatened and bullied, and attacks directed at church properties are on the rise.
Across the country – from the capital Kinshasa to the volatile North Kivu – Catholic Churches, schools and convents are being hit by armed rebels, bandits or militias associated with traditional groups such as Kamwina Nsapu. The clerics say they see killings and burning of religious buildings more frequently than before the mediation process fell apart.
On April 2, armed men targeted a parish in the village of Paida in the city of Beni, North Kivu, and tortured three priests. The armed men stole money, computers and other goods before looting a nearby Catholic school. On March 31, militiamen had attacked the town of Luebo in Kasai region, ransacking buildings, some of which belong to the Catholic Church.
The bishop’s house, a library, a convent and vehicles were set ablaze, with priests and sisters fleeing to the forest together with other local people. The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Luebo was also desecrated by the militiamen.
On February 18, Kamwina Nsapu, a militia group that takes its name from its leader who was killed in August 2016, targeted the Grand Seminary of Malole in Kananga and the Parish of St. Dominic in Kinshasa. At St. Dominic, the tabernacle was desecrated. This marked the first time the group had attacked a Catholic church.
The attack attracted the condemnation of Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, the archbishop of Kinshasa. Cardinal Monsengwo has played an important role in the peace negotiations, and has been vocal about the negotiations’ importance.
Cardinal Monsengwo said the attacks suggested the Catholic Church was being targeted to undermine its mission of peace and reconciliation.
“We call on all of us to show wisdom, restraint and democratic spirit,” said Monsengwo. “Poverty is only increasing and we must guarantee fundamental freedoms and human dignity.”
Some analysts suggest that getting to center of the political crisis has exposed the bishops and the church to violence, likely sponsored by those who were not happy with their work.
But the effect of their efforts has been significant, helping cool a crisis brought about by President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down. Seen as credible and honest, the bishops enjoy the good will of the most Congolese people.
“The attacks are made to punish the commitments of bishops in the political mediation,” said the Center for Promotion of Peace Democracy and Human rights (CEPADHO), an NGO based in North Kivu.
But on March 27, the bishops – under the National Episcopal Conference in Congo (CENCO) -had announced the end of their role as mediators due to disagreements over the implementation of a political deal which they had brokered in December.
Announcing the withdrawal, Bishop Marcel Utembi Tapa of Kisangani and the CENCO President, said the implementation of the pacts agreed at the San Silvestro Inter-Diocesan Center in Kinshasa had failed to satisfy Congo’s general population, who would have wanted to see the ruling party and the opposition taking more decisive action.
Utembi had cited lack of political will and the inability of the actors – both political and civil – to reach compromise as the key contributor to the Church’s withdrawal as mediator.
“The bishops cannot mediate endlessly,” said Bishop Utembi. He urged President Kabila to find ways to quickly implement the deal to create a government of national unity that can steer the country into Presidential and legislative elections.
While the main opposition had reacted to the bishops’ departure by calling a silent protest known as “villes mortes” (dead cities) and organizing political rallies to call for acts of peaceful resistance, Kabila responded by sending police with tear gas to disperse the protesters.
Such scenes in the recent past had turned out bloody and threatened efforts towards peace. This has been cited as a key reason that the bishops accepted the offer to mediate the negotiations in November 2016 at the request of President Kabila.
Amid killings and political repression, the bishops had moved to negotiate with the ruling party (the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy [PPR]) and the main opposition coalition (La Rassemblement) in a move that sought to avert possible violence. After December 19, Kabila was constitutionally required to relinquish power.
By midnight on the New Year’s Eve, after intense consultations, the bishops had successfully brokered a deal. The deal – signed by the ruling coalition, the opposition party coalition, and other groups – detailed that elections would be held in December 2017, that President Kabila would not seek a third term, and that there would be no referendum or changes to the constitution.
The deal states that there will be committees to see to the implementation of the deal. Legislative and provincial elections will also be held in the same year. It also mandated that a Prime Minister be appointed by the opposition coalition.
This was seen with relief throughout the country where, months before, Kabila supporters had been urging the leader to change the constitution to go for a third term and stick to power indefinitely. Kabila did not sign the agreement, although it was signed by his justice minister.
The deal mediated by the bishops had been seen as a model in Africa, where leaders Presidents have somewhat of a habit of changing the constitution to extend their terms in office.
With the departure of the bishops when the deal fell through, Kabila said he would take control of the mediation and meet all parties. The announcement, however, appeared to meet with resistance: the main opposition coalition saying they would not meet Kabila.
The opposition had also been hit with wrangles following the death of its leader Etienne Tshisekedi in February. Tshisekedi had become a symbol of peaceful resistance and democracy. When he died, thousands gathered at his home to pay tribute, but in his party, a power struggle over who should replace him was brewing.
Around the same time, Kabila named Bruno Tshibala, a former leading member of the main opposition, as Prime Minister. As the opposition was supposed to choose the Prime Minister according to the terms of the Church-mediated deal, this move led to further divisions.
For now, the country remains at crossroads; the bishops are concerned the country may descend into anarchy, or even sink into an all-out civil war. The way to avoid such an outcome is to hold free and fair elections.
But one critical question lingers: is President Kabila willing to leave office?
Kabila, a reclusive figure, took power following the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila. He has been one of the longest serving Congolese presidents, after Mobutu Sese Seko, who was overthrown in the first Congolese war from 1996-1997.
He leads a country rich in natural resources, including diamonds, gold oil, timber, copper, hydropower, uranium, and cobalt. Disputes over these resources have fanned war for years. Recently, Kabila has been accused of excessive corruption.
Meanwhile, young people are being recruited by armed militias.
At the moment, the bishops say the country is in a permanent state of insecurity, with killing, pillaging and hijackings being the order of the day.
Moreover, DRC has never enjoyed a peaceful transfer of power. It has experienced assassinations, rebellions, and suffering and death. We pray that the current conflict will finally end in a peace, and a peaceful transfer of power.