Churches, convents, schools, priests and bishops are under threat by violent youth groups and by militias – all protected by powerful people.
In the capital Kinshasa there are groups of youths, called koluna, who are trained in aggression and violence. They are protected by powerful people. Father Julien Wato, the Dominican priest of Saint Dominic’s Church comments that “they arrived at four o’clock in the morning. They smashed the main door of the church. They damaged the altar, threw the tabernacle in the air, and broke the statues of the Virgin and the saints. After two hours they went undisturbed, not even by the police, who were called, but didn’t come”.
Another priest said, “various influential people are spreading hate speeches through local television and radio. Unfortunately, what happened in our parish has already repeatedly happened throughout the country also. Rumors are heard and news of assaulted parishes and seminaries and convents are common issues now”.
Recently at two o’clock at night, another group of koluna attacked the convent of the Sisters, in the capital. After forcing the iron exterior door open, they entered the hallway to the rooms and broke through the wooden gates with machete blows. The sisters were assaulted with violent insults, gestures and obscene swearing. The police waited for the bandits to leave, and then came to see the damage.
A few months ago, a Catholic Seminary in Malole, in the south of the country, had to be evacuated by UN peace-keeping forces by helicopter after armed troops attacked the it. The attackers were part of a militia loyal to former tribal leader Kamwina Nsapu, who died in August 2016.
The animosity towards the Church also extends beyond the churches or convent walls. “In the street, it’s not unusual to hear threats against the Church”, said Father Julien Wato.
Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, the Archbishop of Kinshasa, said that the incidents “lead one to believe that the Catholic Church is being targeted deliberately, in order to sabotage her mission of peace and reconciliation. Along with all bishops, we denounce these acts of violence, which are likely to plunge our country further into unspeakable chaos”, he said.
Last June, the Catholic Church published a report in which it said that more than 3,300 people have been killed since October in the Kasai region alone. The death toll includes civilians caught in the crossfire of a brutal fight between the Congolese army and an opposing militia group. In the central-southern province of Kasai, the report said that 14 villages have been destroyed thus far, totalling at least 3,383 deaths.
Ten villages were destroyed by the central government’s army in an attempt to root out the opposition. Four more villages were demolished by the Kamuina Nsapu militia, killing hundreds of people and attacking church property while trying to drive out the government.
“We obtained these figures from reliable sources”, said the spokesman for the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO), Fr Donatien Nshole. “We set up a system to keep track of all violence perpetrated since the beginning of the conflict”, Fr Nshole explained. “The system is based on the structures of the various dioceses where information is gathered by diocesan commissions. The Catholic Church has a presence in all Congolese villages and thus has access to areas not covered by the UN”, he added.
The report also specifically deals with the damage affecting Catholic religious institutions. A total of 60 parishes, 34 convents, 31 Catholic health centres, and 141 Catholic schools have been damaged. A diocesan centre was destroyed and two bishops had to be evacuated. A large church in Kinshasa was also ransacked by militiamen in February.
Political unrest developed in Congo in 2015 after a bill was proposed which would potentially delay the presidential and parliamentary elections. The bill was widely seen by the opposition as a power grab on the part of Kabila.
Relations between the government and the opposition deteriorated further when a Kasai chief was killed last August, after calling on the central government to quit meddling in the territory, insisting it be controlled by the local leaders. With a history of bloody ethnic rivalries and clashes over resources, fears have developed that the violence in Kasai, a hub for political tension, will spread to the rest of the nation and even lead to the involvement of neighbouring countries.
Catholic bishops in the country had helped to negotiate an agreement, which hoped to prevent a renewal of civil war by securing an election this year for the successor of President Kabila.
In a recent statement, the Catholic bishops said, “The New Year’s Eve Agreement is the only roadmap based on the Constitution, which we must demand respect for and its application by the signatories. Politicians – the document denounces – multiply initiatives to empty the content of the Agreement, thus preventing free, democratic and peaceful elections”.
The Agreement signed on the 31st December 2016, with the mediation of the bishops, provides for the formation of a national unity government that will lead the DRC to general elections by 2017. President Joseph Kabila has, however, created a government with only one part of the opposition. “The political impasse is having disastrous consequences on the national economy – continues the statement – the collapse of the national currency and the rate of growth, unemployment and loss of household purchasing power. Young unemployed people go to swell the ranks of the increasingly numerous armed groups that plunge vast areas of the country into chaos and insecurity”.