A Silent Genocide

Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has claimed over fi ve
million lives since 1995. Only the Church can unite the nation now.

The deadliest fighting since World War II has not taken place during a major war like Korea or Vietnam, or in a well-known genocide like Cambodia’s or Darfur’s, but in a conflict that has received scant Western media attention. Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has claimed millions of lives since 1995 (the most widely cited figure is 5.4 million), leading the nation’s bishops to plead in a November 2008 statement, “We are living through a genuine human tragedy that, as a silent genocide, is being carried out under everyone’s eyes.”

In the 19th century, following exploration of central Africa by Henry Stanley, the European powers at the 1884 Berlin Conference decided that the area of the Congo, in which over 200 ethnic groups lived, would become the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium. Now recognized as among the cruelest colonial regimes, King Leopold’s Congo Free State exploited much of the population in rubber plantations. Systemic atrocities documented by missionaries, journalists, and diplomats—a 1904 British government report put the death toll at three million, a fi gure many historians deem low—provoked an international outcry, leading to the transfer of the colony from the king to the Belgian nation in 1908.

The Catholic faith took root in the Belgian Congo in the decades that followed: by 1956, a third of the colony’s 14 million people were Catholic, and missionaries had developed an impressive network of 16,500 primary schools and nearly 300 secondary and technical schools. In 1959, Blessed John XXIII raised the missionary jurisdictions to dioceses, and the following year, the nation became independent. The Church has continued to flourish in the last five decades: slightly over half of the nation’s population of 66 million is now Catholic, while about 30 percent is Protestant and 20 percent is Muslim.


Within two weeks of independence, the nation began to disintegrate, and the next five years witnessed brutal political turmoil—assassinations, secessions, a UN intervention—that left 100,000 dead. Missionaries were kidnapped, tortured in ways reminiscent of the ancient Roman persecutions, and killed.

In a 1964 message to the Congolese people, Pope Paul VI lamented the fratricidal violence, including the death of “many missionaries, of monks, and nuns, who with blood bore testimony of their fidelity to the Gospel as well as their love for the Congolese nation.” During the consistory of 1965, he offered Mass for missionaries killed there. “Imprisoned and taken as hostages against any human right,” they “became the object of unjustifi able hatred and a cruelty that one wanted to believe had been banished forever from the annals of humanity after the horrors of the last world war. These men and these women, and among them a bishop, the bishop of Wamba, were insulted, tortured, and finally massacred in the most inhuman way…O Congo! Listen to our voice, because it is the voice of a father, who has on the lips only words of forgiveness and peace.”

In 1965, 35-year-old General Joseph Mobutu seized power in a bloodless coup. His 32-year autocratic rule brought stability to the nation even as his corruption and nepotism helped impoverish it. A nominal Catholic—he had entered the army after expulsion from Catholic school for misbehavior— Mobutu embarked upon an “authenticity” campaign that sought to rid the nation of colonial and Western infl uence, and the nation was renamed Zaire. As the anti-Communist Mobutu fostered a personality cult more typically found in Marxist regimes—hymns appeared with Mobutu’s name in place of the name of Jesus—Church leaders did not kowtow.

In particular, Cardinal Joseph-Albert Malula, archbishop of Kinshasa (the nation’s capital) from 1964 to 1989, clashed frequently with the regime. At a Mass commemorating the 10th anniversary of the nation’s independence, the cardinal, in Mobutu’s presence, denounced the nation’s rulers for enriching themselves at the expense of the impoverished population. When Mobutu ordered all Christians to change their baptismal names to non- Christian names, the cardinal told the other bishops to ignore the order. Zaire confi scated Catholic schools, replacing crucifixes and pictures of the pope with photographs of Mobutu, and Cardinal Malula was forced into exile for a time. At the height of the controversy, Pope Paul reminded the Zairian ambassador to the Holy See that the Catholic faith is not imposed upon Zairians “like a foreign culture, since it comes from a gift of God.” Mobutu eventually returned Catholic schools to the Church.

Cardinal Malula’s opposition to Mobutu’s excesses was all the more popular because of strong support of the Africanization of Christianity, an effort to separate the Gospel from extrinsic European cultural elements and replace them with African cultural elements. (The cardinal’s efforts culminated liturgically in the Congregation for Divine Worship’s 1988 approval of the Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire—the so-called Zairian Rite.) Cardinal Malula went so far as to support the ordination of married men; other proponents of Africanization argued that monogamy itself was a Western cultural accretion and tolerated polygamy.

In this context, a vigorous Pope John Paul II delivered 21 talks and homilies in four days in Zaire in 1980. Meeting with Mobutu, the pontiff pointed out that he had always worked to support the sovereignty of his native Poland, but sovereignty was not enough; citizens needed to have a say in their nation’s governance. Preaching to one million during a Mass in Kinshasa, he emphasized that monogamy and the indissolubility of marriage are part of God’s design for creation, not a later Western cultural accretion. Addressing the nation’s bishops, he emphasized the importance of the witness of priestly celibacy and reflected upon how the Gospel took root in Polish culture, saving, purifying, and elevating it.

Following Cardinal Malula’s death, as Mobutu’s hold on power began to weaken, Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kisangani became a leading advocate for democratic reform. From 1991 to 1995, the archbishop led efforts to draft a constitution, oversee a peaceful transition of power, and hold elections in a post-Mobutu Zaire. Now one of the world’s leading churchmen outside the College of Cardinals, he was appointed archbishop of Kinshasa in 2007 and played a major role at October’s Synod of Bishops after Pope Benedict named him the synod’s special secretary.

During a 1992 trip to Washington, Archbishop Monsengwo warned that an “apocalypse” would take place in Zaire if efforts at democratic reform failed. He was right.


At stake in the conflict raging in the area since 1995—in essence, three distinct but connected wars—is control of the nation’s vast mineral resources: diamonds, gold, silver, copper, uranium, oil, cobalt, and coltan, which is used in cell phones.

Mobutu ruled Zaire from the western city of Kinshasa, but his hold on the eastern edge of the nation, which borders Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, was tenuous. In 1965, Che Guevara came to the eastern Congo to train a young Marxist, Laurent Kabila, but Kabila’s attempts at rebellion never amounted to much, and he went into hiding.

Eastern Zaire was destabilized in the years following the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which claimed one million victims, most of them Tutsis slain by Hutus. Following the Tutsi takeover of Rwanda that put an end to the genocide, some two million Hutus fled to eastern Zaire, where they soon clashed with Zairian Tutsis. Kabila came out of hiding, and with Rwandan and Ugandan backing, led the Zairian Tutsis, eventually leading a broader revolt against Mobutu’s rule. While the population largely welcomed Kabila’s march westward to Kinshasa, his army killed tens of thousands of civilians, according to Human Rights Watch.

In a last attempt at a peaceful transition, Archbishop Monsengwo was named speaker of the Zairian parliament, but Kabila ignored him as he marched into Kinshasa in 1997. Until his assassination in 2001, Kabila, who renamed the nation the Democratic Republic of the Congo, “regularly and ruthlessly violated the human rights of the Congolese people, killing, torturing, imprisoning, and causing the ‘disappearance’ of any who he thought threatened him or his regime,” according to Human Rights Watch. Cardinal Malula’s successor in Kinshasa from 1990 to 2007—the late Cardinal Frédéric Etsou-Nzabi Bamungwabi—joined Archbishop Monsengwo as a leading critic of the Kabila’s human rights violations.

Kabila’s successful rebellion—later known as the First Congo War—gave way to the Second Congo War, which claimed the lives of 3.3 million between 1998 and 2003. Relations between Kabila and his former Rwandan and Ugandan benefactors turned sour, and Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Zairian Tutsis, and other allied groups battled against the Kabila government, which was backed by forces from Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. Pope John Paul repeatedly called for peace, and the Congolese bishops called for peace, open elections, and an international peacekeeping force that could end the fighting.

Church leaders were not spared during the confl icts. In 1996, Archbishop Christophe Munzihirwa Mwene Ngabo, a Jesuit and vocal defender of human rights, was killed during a shootout between Mobutu’s army and Kabila’s rebels. In 2000, his successor as archbishop of the Bukavu, Archbishop Emmanuel Kataliko, was arrested by Rwandan-allied forces and exiled from his diocese. In 2002, a grenade injured Bishop Faustin Ngabu of Goma during a Palm Sunday procession.

That year, the Congolese bishops called upon Joseph Kabila, who succeeded his father as the nation’s leader, to hold elections. The bishops also called upon foreign troops to leave the nation and urged the United Nations to send peacekeepers to secure the nation’s eastern border.

In 2003, the Second Congo War officially ended when Joseph Kabila agreed to a transition government before elections and foreign troops agreed to leave the country. The end result, according to the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, was:

massive unemployment (60 percent) due to the destruction of the economy; 60 percent of the food production has been destroyed and the infrastructure is severely damaged. The population is highly impoverished with 50 percent of the population living below the poverty line…. With an economic increase of 5 percent of the gross domestic product annually, and a growth of the population of 3 percent annually, it would take 70 years to reach the same level of living of 1960, and the 1990 level could be reached in 45 years.


The following year, General Laurent Nkunda—who had been associated with a pro-Rwandan group in the Second Congo War—launched a rebellion of Congolese Tutsis in the eastern region of Kivu against the Congolese government. The nation’s bishops lamented a “loss of the sense of the sacred to the point of committing acts of desecration of churches and of the Blessed Sacrament.”

The rebellion intensified after Kabila won a 2006 presidential election whose fairness was questioned by Cardinal Etsou. In the years that followed, according to Human Rights Watch, “the government of President Joseph Kabila”— much like Mobutu and his father before him—“has used violence and intimidation to eliminate its political opponents.”

The situation in Kivu became far worse in late 2008, as government forces, Nkunda’s troops, Rwandan Hutus, Ugandan rebels, and local militias battled for control of the area, with Nkunda gaining the ascendancy over Kabila’s government troops. All groups are accused of systemic human rights violations. MONUC, the UN’s largest and most expensive peacekeeping force, is also present, but is viewed as ineffective at stopping atrocities.

Archbishop François-Xavier Maroy Rusengo of Bukavu (South Kivu’s capital) discussed the human rights violations during a visit to the US last fall:

These wars have seen the use of rape as a “weapon of war” in the region. Rape is still all too common with many of the victims subjected not only to forcible sexual intercourse, but also to an array of torture and mutilation over extended periods of time. Gender and age offer no protection. Although the vast majority of rape victims are female, men are slowly beginning to come forward with their stories of surviving rape and documented cases of rape have ranged in age from as young as three and to as old as 80. If the victim survived the trauma of assault, his/her trauma is further increased by infection, disease, and social isolation. For women, a pregnancy from rape can result in giving birth to a child that is considered “cursed” by the family and community and she is often forced by societal norms to abandon the child.

The current crisis in the Congo is not limited to Kivu. Michelle Hough, communications offi cer for Caritas Internationalis— the Church’s umbrella organization of relief agencies—told CWR that “there is also a much lower profi le (and separate) emergency in northern Congo, where Ugandan LRA rebels have been terrorizing the population and burning villages. Bishop Richard Domba Mady from Doruma-Dungu in northern Congo told me that two Italian priests there were beaten up and their presbytery was burnt down recently. They had to flee, first to Sudan, then Uganda, and then back to Italy.”

On October 30, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said that “the world cannot continue looking on without reacting to the death of innocent victims of acts of violence and barbarity, and with indifference toward the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the war….The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace also asks the international community to intervene with all its strength in resolving the confl ict.”

Following his November 9 Angelus address, Pope Benedict XVI, who has frequently called for peace in the troubled nation, lamented:

Disturbing news continues to reach us from the region of North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bloody, armed confl icts and systematic atrocities have claimed and continue to claim numerous victims among innocent civilians. Destruction, looting, and violence of every kind have forced other tens of thousands of people to abandon even what little they had to survive. The number of refugees is currently estimated at more than one and a half million. To each and every one of them I wish to express my particular nearness, as I encourage and bless those who are working to alleviate their suffering…. I renew my fervent appeal that all may collaborate to restore peace in that land, too long a land of martyrdom, respect for the legal rights, and above all the dignity of every person.

Four days later, the Congolese bishops issued “a cry of desperation” to the international community:

We, archbishops and bishops… launch a cry of desperation and protest. We are living through a genuine human tragedy that, as a silent genocide, is being carried out under everyone’s eyes. The large-scale massacres of the civil population, the selective extermination of young people, the systematic violations carried out as a weapon of war, have again been unleashed with unthinkable cruelty and virulence against the local population that has never asked for more than a tranquil and dignified life in their lands.

Likely referring to MONUC, the bishops added, “What is most deplorable is that these terrible events occur under the impassive gaze of those who have received the mandate to maintain peace and protect the civilian population. Our political leaders themselves seem impotent in face of the scope of the situation, and give the impression of not being up to the challenges of peace, of the defense of the Congolese population and of the integrity of the national territory…. We appeal to the international community to be sincerely committed to respect for international law. We consider it an imperative need to send a force of pacifi cation and stabilization to reestablish rights in our country.”

Echoing the Congolese bishops, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi told the UN Human Rights Council on November 28:

The daily reports on human suffering in the North Kivu district of the Democratic Republic of Congo are deeply troubling to the delegation of the Holy See. Death, rape, lootings, forced recruitment, and displacement of civilian population have become a daily reality in that country. The international community cannot stand by idle and needs to speak out clearly…. The Holy See condemns the large-scale occurrence of serious violations of human rights and of humanitarian law. It deplores the recruitment of children and adolescents as soldiers. It is alarmed by the many cases of torture and other cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, including the frequent occurrence of sexual violence against women and girls by all parties to the conflict. The international community needs to act swiftly in the face of these grave infringements of human rights….

Latest figures show that about two million people are forcibly displaced in the DRC. Their right to food, water, decent work, adequate housing, education, and health is seriously jeopardized…. It was recently reported that about 200,000 people are living in the bush and little is known about their situation.

In an effort to raise awareness of the crisis, two Congolese bishops and a nun met in December with US and Canadian bishops and government offi cials. Archbishop Brendan O’Brien of Kingston (Ontario), who met with the Congolese delegation, told CWR that the most important facts he gleaned were the following:

• “An estimated four to five million have died as a result of wars in the DRC since 1998. It is a human tragedy on an immense scale—five times greater than that of the Rwandan genocide of 1994—that is usually ignored by the English speaking world. Some have died caught in crossfire, many others have died as a result of displacement from theirvillages, ensuing hunger, disease, and exposure to the elements.

• “The conflict, while often portrayed as ethnic killings, is actually morerelated to a struggle to control the artisanal informal mines which mine the natural resources of the region—coltan or tantalum (used in cell phones and laptops), gold and cassiterite (tin ore, also used in computers). Armed groups struggle for control of these valuable resources which are smuggled out onto international markets through Rwanda. Those who buy these minerals, which are produced in conditions of enslavement and human misery, are complicit in the tragedy of the eastern Congo.

• “The violence used by the armed groups, including Nkunda’s militias, and the pro-government groups, as well as the Congolese army itself, is unspeakable. Women are systematically and violently raped and children are forcibly recruited to the militias—the most vulnerable sectors of society are the targets of the armed groups. It is often said by Congolese that it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in the current situation of the Eastern Congo.”

Eleonore Fournier-Tombs, communications officer for the Canadian bishops’ agency Development and Peace, agrees. She told CWR that the delegation noted “that rape is being used strategically as a weapon of war in order to undermine communities…. HIV-infected soldiers will commit serial-rape on purpose to contaminate as many women as possible, and by extension, their unborn children. This is a horrible violation of human rights and needs international attention immediately…. The two bishops and the sister all said that the conflict is caused in great part by illegal mining and trade of resources, such as coltan. Companies that want to buy these resources benefit from the chaos, as it lowers the prices. There is a lot of illegal trade of coltan through the Rwandan border, as Rwanda exports coltan but does not mine it within its borders.”

Archbishop O’Brien added, “An efficient and well-resourced international force should be immediately deployed to stop the violence and to force all parties to respect the Goma peace accord that they signed in January 2008 by which they agreed to set down arms…. The UN peacekeeping mission, MONUC, made up largely of under-resourced and undertrained Third World armies, has shown itself to be incapable of imposing peace…. The UN should carry out an in-depth investigation into how minerals mined in artisanal mines in North and South Kivu that are under the control of armed groups that terrorize the population end up on ‘legal’ world markets, and how we in the developed world may be profiting from ‘blood coltan.’”

Following the delegation’s meeting with the Canadian foreign minister, government spokesman Lisa Monette told CWR that “Canada fully supports the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) in its mandate to protect civilians. We currently contribute 11 Canadian Forces personnel to MONUC and we are actively engaged on the diplomatic scene to put an end to the conflict.”

Throughout the conflict, the Congolese hierarchy has remained respected for its independence and its advocacy of the peaceful, democratic development of society. Alpha Sankoh, country director for the anti-poverty agency ActionAid in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told CWR that “the region’s bishops (and priests) have generally been considered to be advocates for peace and have not taken sides.”

Even more, only the Church has the spiritual means to unite the vast nation at the conclusion of the confl ict. As Pope Benedict observed in 2006, after the Second Congo War:

The Church with her Catholic unity is the great factor that unites in dispersion. In many situations, especially now, after the great war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Church has remained the one reality which functions and makes life continue, which provides the necessary assistance, guarantees coexistence, and helps to find the possibility of creating one great solution. In this sense, in these situations, the Church also carries out a service that replaces the political level, giving the possibility of living together and of rebuilding communion after destruction and of rebuilding, after the outburst of hatred, the spirit of reconciliation. Many people have told me that precisely in these situations, the sacrament of penance is of great importance as a force of reconciliation and must also be administered with this in view.

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About J. J. Ziegler 62 Articles
J. J. Ziegler, who holds degrees in classics and sacred theology, writes from North Carolina.