It was in the middle of the last Sunday mass of 2017 that the crackdown began. Armed security forces entered churches, hurled tear gas canisters and arrested priests and altar boys for supporting demonstrations against the government of President Joseph Kabila.
Over the year before that December 31 assault, the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Catholic Church in the country had maintained an increasingly tense but largely civil relationship. When Kabila had refused to step down on December 31, 2016, despite a constitutional requirement that he do so, it was the Church that had brokered a peace agreement between the government and the opposition, under which the president committed to quitting by the end of 2017.
As that day approached, though, Kabila made clear he had no intention of fulfilling his promise, and protesters filled the streets of Africa’s vastest country. On the final day of the year, Church bishops joined in the protests marking the anniversary of the deal under which the president was to quit. At least eight protesters were killed by police and 120 arrested in the anti-Kabila demonstrations on December 31, 2017.
Clashes between police and Catholics … are likely to continue until Kabila steps down from the presidency.
Father John Baptist Nkuhe, organizer of a protest against President Kabila
But if Kabila had expected the use of force to quell the Church’s criticism, he was mistaken. The Church has since taken on a far more public role against Kabila, emerging as the principal pillar of opposition to the controversial president in the country where half the population is Catholic. It is organizing and leading protests, as clashes between police forces and Catholics too have mounted through early 2018. The Church is working with local communities to influence key economic policies — its interventions were critical in shaping a new mining law that imposes higher taxes on foreign firms. And it is carving out a diplomatic role for itself, getting both the Vatican and the UN to weigh in against Kabila and to demand elections in the country.
It’s a tussle that the Democratic Republic of the Congo has seen before, when former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko successfully stared down opposition from the Church in the 1980s after it had criticized his policies and asked citizens to vote according to their conscience. But for the two decades after Mobutu’s regime ended in 1997, the Church has played the role of referee, staying out of overt politics and public policy. And indeed, through history, leaders of predominantly Catholic nations have tried to get the Church to legitimize their rule. But this time, the battle lines are drawn far sharper than in the 1980s. Kabila isn’t backing down, but neither is the Church, setting the stage for a drawn-out crisis with religious leaders at the heart of a nation’s search for political salvation.
“Since [December 31, 2017], several clashes between police and Catholics have continued to take place and are likely to continue until Kabila steps down from the presidency,” says Father John Baptist Nkuhe, one of the organizers of demonstrations in the country’s east.
The divide is sharp. The leader of the Catholic Church in the country, Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, has said in a statement that he condemns the “barbaric manner in which policemen killed innocent protesters” this past New Year’s Eve. But the government’s spokesperson, Lambert Mende Omalanga, has said protesters had violated a ban on demonstrations that was imposed because of intelligence inputs “indicating that criminals were going to infiltrate the protests and cause chaos.”
The genesis of these current tensions lies in the same crisis that has torn at the nation’s unity since Kabila’s refusal to leave power after his term expired at the end of 2016. The president argued then that the country wasn’t ready for fresh elections since most voters hadn’t yet registered. Violent protests at that time left more than 50 people dead, before the Church mediated an agreement giving Kabila breathing space for a year — but no more.
A few days after the signing of the December 2016 agreement, however, several Catholic churches in different parts of the country were attacked by armed men who vandalized property and kidnapped some priests. The worst-hit region was Kasai, one of the country’s poorest parts, where anti-Kabila protesters attacked the police. The office of the papal nuncio in Kinshasa said in a statement at the time that 60 parishes, 34 religious houses and 141 schools were closed or damaged because of clashes between the police and rebels. Though the police insisted that the churches were being attacked by bandits, eyewitnesses said that some of those who vandalized churches were in uniforms similar to that of the national army.
“It is likely the attacks on churches were a warning to the bishops and Catholic Church at large that it should not interfere in the country’s politics,” says Congolese political analyst Thomas Kasongo. The Church complained to the government, but the response was tepid. Even today, some priests who were kidnapped then have not been traced.
If that was a proxy war, the battle is now out in the open, with the government’s harsh actions against the Church following recent protests, and declarations by bishops that they will lead similar opposition action all over the country.
The Church has demonstrated its capacity to challenge Kabila, an ability the government can’t ignore, says Kasongo. The Church manages most schools and hospitals in the country and works across the nation’s villages. It has also lent its voice to key economic debates. The Church lobbied — successfully — for provisions in the country’s new mining law that address environmental and developmental concerns of local communities that have long argued that the benefits of the industry haven’t reached them.
It is also pulling its diplomatic clout. In January, Pope Francis called on the authorities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to avoid violence. And on March 19, a Congolese clergyman addressed the UN Security Council, seeking their intervention to ensure that the country holds democratic elections soon. The Security Council issued a statement censuring Kabila.
But Kabila has shown that he isn’t too perturbed by either the international community or by the Church. “The way the state reacted by even sending soldiers in churches shows it can do without the Church,” says Kasongo.
The crisis is deepening. But there’s little pointing to a resolution, in a country with a long history of violent conflicts over political ideology and ethnic affiliations. A new one is shaping up — only this time, with religion too in the mix.
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