This September, a delegation of 32 Congolese religious leaders, both Christian and Muslim, travelled to the UN’s headquarters in New York to deliver a petition signed by over a million people calling for action to end the conflict in eastern DRC “orchestrated unjustly by Rwandan government”.
“We did not come to represent the Congolese government”, the petition reads, “nor did we come to declare war to Rwanda. Our approach does not seek to harm Rwanda in any form of action but to denounce its wrongdoings reflected in its constant killings and rapes of our people.”
Since April, fighting between Congolese troops and the rebel group M23 has caused the displacement of a reported 470,000 civilians. A UN report in July found evidence that the Rwandan government has been supporting the rebels leading to the suspension of some aid by a number of Rwanda’s donors. Some of the aid that was frozen has since, however, been resumed.
Over the past twenty years – many of them marred by conflict – the Congolese church has played a controversial role in the east of the country. On the one hand, it has often been a principal provider of schooling, health services and communications, given the weakness of the central government in the region. Some, however, claim the church has not only failed in its responsibility to provide the moral guidance sorely needed during times of conflict, but that infighting amongst the clergy led to deeper divisiveness when unity was called for.
In many respects, the religious leaders’ petition to the UN can be seen as an attempt to make amends for past failures.
The petition places the blame for the renewed conflict on Rwanda, claiming it created the M23 rebel group and that Kigali is provided them with support and weapons. Dieudonné Mbaya Tshiakany, National Moderator of Christ’s Church of the Congo, said in the UN press conference that Rwanda had sought “to alter the demographic makeup of the DRC in an attempt to annex it”. Tshiakany also referred to the conflict as a forgotten crisis and expressed frustration over the inaction of the international community. The religious leaders also reject all negotiations with the rebels and asked that Rwanda’s proposed candidacy to be a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council be declined.
Speaking to Think Africa Press, Anglican Bishop of Kindu, Right Reverend Masimango Katanda declared, “We have information from people at grassroots level [who can tell] of how they see Rwandan troops crossing the border”. Sponsoring M23, Katanda continued, “is a quick way to get mineral resources which [can bring in] far more than the money the UK government can give [in aid]”.
The religious leaders also visited Canada, the UK and other major donors in an attempt to raise the profile of the conflict and the suffering of Congolese in the Kivus.
The unity displayed by the delegation represents a departure from the divisive role played by the clergy, particularly the Catholic Church, during the turbulent years of war from 1996 to 2003.
During this time, infighting among the Catholic clergy came to reflect the divisive ethnic politics that has proven so destructive in Congo’s recent history. Bishop of Uvira Jerome Gapangwa and the Bishop Faustin Ngabu, for example, were clearly partisan towards Rwanda during the conflict. Political scientist Timothy Longman notes that when local groups attacked Tutsis in 1996, Ngabu denounced the violence and personally visited the conflict zone. A year later when the Rwandan Patriotic Front attacked Hutu refugees, Ngabu remained silent, arguing it was “not the concern of the church”.
Meanwhile, Archbishop of Bukavu Emmanuel Kataliko refused to cooperate with the Rwandans, declaring that if he were to do so, he would lose all legitimacy among local Catholics – a barbed reference to Gapangwa’s perceived Rwandan sympathies. Furthermore, on Christmas Eve 1999, Kataliko delivered a vehemently anti-Rwandan sermon, castigating the rebel group Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) for looting everything of value in the DRC and taking it abroad. Kataliko was arrested and detained for seven months before being flown to Rome where he soon died. Ngabu’s silence on the matter was taken as a signal of tacit approval for the arrest.
With over Catholics making up 50% of the population, the Church’s inability to rise above the conflict is seen by many as unforgiveable.
At the same time, however, the Church plays a fundamental role in society in the eastern DRC. Commentators often refer to the ‘absence’ of the Congolese state in parts of the country, with the state failing to fulfil its role as provider of public services. The Kivus in particular have suffered from state neglect. Mobutu Sese Seko, paranoid that the rebellious east would lead to his demise (which it eventually did) deliberately disregarded transport links with the region for fear an insurrection might reach Kinshasa. War further contributed to the underdevelopment of the area.
Yet despite the absence of the central state, many areas of public life have continued to function to a great extent due to the church filling the void. By 2000, for example, government funding of schooling had all but ceased, yet between 2002 and 2007 the number of Congolese children attending school rose steadily by 11% per year.
The church initially planned to subsidise schooling temporarily through a ‘salary top-up system’, but the practice soon became institutionalised. Today, the DRC’s school system continues to be supported in this manner. In addition, health clinics and communications systems such as radio stations are often funded by religious NGOs and charities. And women’s, youth, and other civil society groups are frequently organised and coordinated by the local church. Owing to its considerable ownership of land, the church has been the provider of salaried labour to many.
Given its central role in the lives of those in eastern DRC – and the state’s relative absence – it is perhaps justifiable to argue that when the church claims to speak on behalf of the local population, they do so with more legitimacy than the government.
Bishop Katanda certainly seems determined to alleviate the suffering of his parishioners. In 2003, in Maniema, Katanda visited Mai Mai rebels in order to convince them to lay down their weapons. “These people [the Mai Mai] are our relatives, our brothers and sisters, our cousins, members of our churches” he explained. “So we decided to go and meet them and tell them that what they are doing would change nothing…They understood and handed over their weapons to the UN troops. Most of them have been re-integrated.”
Today, the eastern DRC is once again facing rising challenges and dangers in the face of renewed conflict. Eastern Congolese will be hoping that this time around, their religious leaders can deliver the unity and solidarity so desperately needed.
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