“Our leaders have hardened their hearts”: A Congolese bishop discusses his country in crisis

After peace talks fell apart last spring, the bishops of the Democratic Republic of Congo have continued to be a force for peace in a tumultuous and violent political climate.

A priest runs as riot police fire tear gas canisters to disperse demonstrators during a protest organized by Catholic activists in Kinshasa, Congo. (CNS photo/Kenny Katombe, Reuters)

Earlier this month, Pope Francis invited all the faithful to a participate in a special day of prayer and fasting for the people of South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo, to be held on Friday, February 23. The Holy Father had planned to visit the region last year, but the trip was postponed due to security concerns. South Sudan has been in throes of a civil war for several years now, with more than 2 million people being displaced by the conflict.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has seen continued violence and instability as the government and opposition forces struggle over delays in presidential elections. The country’s president, Joseph Kabila, was supposed to step down at the conclusion of his second term in December 2016; however, elections for a successor were not held. The country’s Catholic bishops were involved in brokering a deal whereby Kabila would not seek a third term and would step down in December 2017; in late March, the bishops withdrew from the mediation process, citing a lack of political will and openness to compromise on the part of the government. Since then, Catholic churches and properties have been targets for violence and looting, and protests led by Catholic activists and clergy have been forcibly suppressed by police.

In late 2017, the government announced that presidential elections would be held in December 2018.

CWR recently interviewed the auxiliary bishop of Kinshasa, Bishop Donatien Bafuidinsoni Maloko-Mana, SJ, about the situation in the DRC and the roll of the Catholic bishops in the tumultuous political climate.

CWR: In December 2017, lay Catholics in the Democratic Republic of Congo called for peaceful marches to demand Joseph Kabila step down from office, as was agreed upon the previous year. What happened on December 31, 2017?

Bishop Donatien Bafuidinsoni Maloko-Mana, SJ: December 31 was a Sunday, the last day of the year 2017. I will never forget it. Indeed, the images, the photos I saw on television, are still in my head. The alarming phone calls I received are still ringing in my ears. Note that the day before or early in the morning, parishes were padlocked to prevent Christians from praying. Heavily armed policemen and soldiers were deployed throughout [Kinshasa] in front of the parishes. In the parishes where it was possible to pray, after the Mass, Catholic Christians from several parishes wanted to walk, on the call of the Lay Coordination Committee.

This march was strangled by police officers and soldiers who threw tear gas, fired live ammunition [at] Christians who had only rosaries, Bibles, statues and images of the Virgin Mary, and palm branches in their hands. There were more or less seven deaths, several wounded, multiple arrests, desecrated churches, money stolen [by] police, military, and other security officers in civilian clothes. The bodies of most of the dead have been stolen by the police, as they are accustomed to do.

The images of that sad day have been circulated on social networks and other media.  These were deplorable scenes, intolerable and never seen, even in the days of Mobutu’s dictatorship.

Another march was called on January 21, 2018 in Kinshasa. Then, the police and military forces did even worse, and showed that they adopted force, terror, and violence in order to stay in power. On that day the same happened in other cities, such as Lubumbashi, Kisangani, Mbuji-Mayi, Goma, etc.  Many witnesses [said] that among police and military personnel, there were mercenaries who spoke foreign languages.

Through these marches, the people express their frustration at a power that destroys the country, tramps the population, and has no vision or ambition for the future of the country. The people have understood that since 1997 the current rulers have been serving other foreign projects and that the country will not go anywhere with them. From then on, whether we like it or not, the people will fight to save the country, and for its true liberation.

CWR: The Catholic Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been the main mediator in the political crisis that the country is faced with. Why did the Church decide to become involved in the process?

Bishop Maloko-Mana: The Catholic Church itself never thought to get involved in this process; this was at the request of politicians, both the Presidential Majority and the opposition, given the impasse of the political situation following the debacle of the dialogue of September 2016 under the supervision of Edem Kodjo. Thereafter, with the help of the Church, an agreement was reached allowing Joseph Kabila to remain in power until December 31, 2017, hoping that elections would be held by December 19, 2017 at the latest. This was done with the conviction of allowing a peaceful transmission of the country’s presidency.

CWR: Could you please give us a brief history of how the Catholic Church in the DRC has participated in ensuring democracy and supporting grass-roots civic action?

Bishop Maloko-Mana: Since the independence [in 1960], the Catholic Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo has always accompanied the political class in the effort to entrench democracy in the country. For instance, we have in mind the contribution of the Catholic Church during the sovereign national conference around 1990-1992. That was at a time when we were moving from the single party to democratic openness. Thus, on February 16, 1992, Christians marched to demand the reopening of the conference suspended by Mobutu and his prime minister. In that year, the march was violently suppressed and several people were killed and wounded.

The Catholic Church remains in its role of awakening consciousness and mobilizing the Catholic laity to assume its responsibility for a rule of law where peace and justice reign, with a government dedicated to the welfare of the people.

CWR: The Congolese electoral commission has scheduled a presidential election for December 2018. Do you think this new commitment will be honored?

Bishop Maloko-Mana: An electoral calendar has been published, with constraints and preconditions that must be met, otherwise, the elections will not take place on the announced date. … There are worrying signals and we have been used to hidden agendas; those in power are not animated by goodwill for a transfer of power. I would therefore not be surprised to learn that, for some reason or other, already planned and hidden in the eyes of the naive, these elections will be postponed as we saw in 2016 and 2017.

The electoral commission does not inspire confidence…. After all, the logic of those in power is to cling to it and then change the constitution, to have from then on the president be elected by the members of parliament wherein those in power now will always have the majority.

In short, I would like to [be mistaken] in saying that they will remain consistent with themselves: not honoring their commitments, non-compliance with the Constitution and with the agreements signed. I remain suspicious and even skeptical. They’ve already shown the evidence.

CWR: At the general audience on the 24th of January 2018, Pope Francis renewed his call for peace in Congo. Are the authorities listening to his call? How else is the Pope assisting the Church in Congo in resolving the crisis?

Bishop Maloko-Mana: The Pope has already called for a prayer for the Democratic Republic of Congo on November 23, 2017.  February 23, 2018 will be the second time. On several occasions, the Pope has asked Catholics to pray for our country. He is attentive to what is happening. In 2016, he received Mr. Joseph Kabila and I am sure that he asked him to choose the best way to leave power—that is, to organize the elections for the good of the country. However, it is clear that our leaders have hardened their hearts, clogged their ears, closed their eyes so as not to see the misery of the people; in order to enrich themselves outrageously, scandalously, they close their hands to be the only ones to enjoy the country’s riches—they, their families, and their international sponsors. The Pope has nothing but prayer and words to address the world, which seems indifferent to the sufferings of the Congolese people. We hope that one day our leaders and international decision-makers will listen to him, convert, and understand that power for [power’s sake] is doomed to failure, to deadlock—that power only makes sense if it is put at the service of others, that wealth does not bring happiness.

Moreover, it is unfortunate that the political class, the majority as well as the opposition, is made up for the most part of people who are hungry for money and honors.

CWR: What is the message of the Congolese bishops to the people during this crisis?

Bishop Maloko-Mana: Since this crisis, the bishops have told the people…to keep hope and to stand up and assume their destiny. Never take the path of violence, [which] never brings peace. The people must remain unshakeable in faith and act with charity towards all. In the face of violence in words and deeds that the people suffer, we must not respond with hatred; forgiveness is the best force to disarm the persecutors. Faced with a predatory, proud power, which wants to govern by challenge and force of arms, there is only the awakening, patriotic impulse and the proclamation of truth…. The country belongs to all of us and we have to defend its integrity, fight for justice and democracy, and for the well-being of all, above all the poor.

CWR: What is your perspective on the future of the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Bishop Maloko-Mana: Today, the [future] seems uncertain because of a group of individuals who want to satisfy their selfish interests and those of their supporters, [to] destabilize the Democratic Republic of Congo, balkanize it, occupy part of its territory, seize its wealth and serve hegemonic projects. But the Congolese people have become aware of regional issues and know that their future will be bright when the country has responsible and disinterested leaders who are ready truly to serve the people.

CWR: What can the larger Catholic Church in Africa learn from your experience in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Bishop Maloko-Mana: The Church in Africa should realize that the Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo is living a time of persecution, of martyrdom in its faithful, its priests, its religious, its bishops. Recently, not two weeks or a month have passed without a religious community or a parish being attacked by armed men to steal and destroy. A usual, no one has never been arrested.  When churches are desecrated, [or] the faithful are arrested [or] violated, when the state media spends time…setting up strategies to weaken the moral authority of the Church…. I would like to hear the voice of “the sister churches” in Africa denounce the persecution of the Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to call for solidarity to support our fight for democracy, for the respect of citizens’ rights, for its preferential option for the poor and the small, for more justice and peace.

I thank you for the initiative you have taken to question me and thus echo the difficult situation that the Democratic Republic of Congo is going through, and the Church’s mission to accompany a people who are suffering and [to] speak for those who are crucified because they are fighting for justice…. The Church will always be next to the people who suffer.

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About Allen Ottaro 32 Articles
Allen Ottaro lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is a parishioner at St. Paul’s Catholic University Chapel in the Archdiocese of Nairobi. He is a co-founder of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa, and is the former national coordinator of MAGIS Kenya.

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