During the final mass of his Latin American tour this past week, Pope Francis highlighted one of the most devastating crises currently affecting Christians: the ongoing atrocities being committed by Joseph Kabila’s unconstitutional government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In an emotional appeal in Lima, the leader of the Catholic Church demanded that Congolese authorities do everything possible to stop the constant escalation of violence against peaceful protesters.
Over the 12+ months that President Kabila has refused to step down since his term officially ended, Pope Francis and the Catholic Church have been among the strongest voices calling for Kabila to allow free and fair elections to choose his successor. When Kabila visited the Vatican in September 2016, as concerns intensified that he would delay the elections then scheduled for December of that year, Francis pointedly received him in his library, rather than the reception room in which he usually greets heads of state. The pope used their conversation to urge Kabila to ensure a peaceful transition of power.
Yet in more than a year since that meeting, a transition of power has yet to take place. Instead, Kabila has taken progressively more extreme measures to cling to power, from attempts to change the constitution to increasingly violent crackdowns on protests. In late 2016, the influential and widely respected Catholic Church of Congo brokered an agreement to allow Kabila to remain president until the end of 2017, provided that he refrain from amending the Constitution or staying in office beyond December 31, 2017. The passage of that date marked not only Kabila’s failure to stick to his side of the bargain, but one of the Congolese authorities’ most egregious violations of human rights yet.
At least seven civilians, including children, were fatally shot during peaceful demonstrations, called for by the Catholic Church, on New Year’s Eve. The government prepared for the protests by blocking the internet and setting up roadblocks and checkpoints throughout the capital, Kinshasa. Citizens wearing visible religious symbols like crosses were barred at the checkpoints and ordered to return home.
As thousands of the faithful heeded the church’s call to march after Mass on December 31, Bibles and rosaries in hand, Congolese security forces moved in, opening fire on kneeling protestors while they sang hymns and deploying tear gas in churches. In one Kinshasa parish, the police used more than 6 rounds of tear gas to target children and elderly worshippers taking shelter in the sanctuary. They ransacked the church searching for valuables to steal, and even attempted to set fire to a statue of the Virgin Mary. The police shot out another church’s stained-glass windows, beating and robbing the worshippers inside. Twelve altar boys were detained, still in their liturgical robes. Throughout this appalling carnage, the perpetrators left little doubt as to who was responsible. As a soldier was battering and robbing one journalist who had joined the protests, he taunted him: “You play with Kabila, but he’s the one who has the weapons.”
This horrific violence has only grown worse in the new year. On January 12, armed officers greeted mourners at a memorial mass for those killed on New Year’s Eve, firing warning shots into the air. The DRC again blocked access to the internet and sent armed officers to man roadblocks ahead of protests on January 21. Thousands defied the government’s threats and once more took to the streets, only to be met with a repeat of New Year’s barbaric brutality. At least six people were shot by security forces, with dozens more injured. Bloomberg reporters witnessed two priests being beaten and subsequently detained. At least 10 priests in total are detained in poor conditions, while two nuns are missing. The military police even punched, kicked and used tear gas against uniformed UN personnel observing the protests.
While on the whole, the DRC’s grinding humanitarian crisis remains disgracefully underreported and underfunded, numerous international observers have recognized the extraordinary nature of this repression. The tragedies of New Year’s Eve marked the first time “in the 57-year history of independent Congo that the government has attacked Christians while they prayed in church.” Ida Sawyer, the Central Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, insisted that “Congolese security forces hit a new low by firing into church grounds to disrupt peaceful services and processions.” Congolese opposition leader Moïse Katumbi, who has been living in exile since he was convicted in absentia on charges widely recognized to be politically motivated, tweeted soon after the January 21 attacks: “Faced with the repressive lunacy of the #Kabila regime, the people displayed their heroism. We pray for the victims. Democracy and justice in the #DRC will be born from the sacrifice of these martyrs. ‘After the shadows, light’. We will remain mobilized until the end of this inhumane regime.”
Katumbi is right to point out the astounding heroism and bravery shown by the Congolese people over the last few weeks. One Kinshasa priest remarked after having seen the considerable armed presence surrounding his church, “I was sure that the faithful would be too afraid to go to Mass the next day. But I see now that the Congolese people are determined.”
This determination and courage deserves more support from the international community. Fellow Christians, in particular, can no longer turn a blind eye to this cruel persecution. Catholic leaders in the Congo have shown their willingness to put themselves on the front lines of this fight “to save the Congo”, as the call to march on December 31st made clear. It is time for Christians elsewhere in the world to follow their example, as well as Pope Francis’s, and demand a return to the respect of fundamental rights in the DRC.