Since the end of last year, when the Catholic laity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo began to openly protest against the situation in the country, there has been support from many quarters, both inside and outside the country. Within the Congo the Catholic Bishops’ Conference has supported them. More recently they also took courage from the words of the Holy Father, who likewise spoke up for the common good of all the Congolese people. And a new climate of support is also emerging among other Christians and those of other faiths, despite new victims of state violence.
On 25 February this year, in the capital Kinshasa and other cities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the peaceful protest marches were once again repressed.
According to the National bishops’ Conference, there were 149 separate peaceful marches. 66 of them were suppressed while still within parish grounds, 67 were broken up with live bullets and tear gas and just 16 passed off without incident. The final toll was two people shot dead, 32 wounded (13 of them with bullet wounds) and 76 people arrested. The police however claimed that just one person had been killed, by a rubber bullet, and five wounded.
This third peaceful protest march – organised like the two preceding ones by the Committee of Catholic laity (Comité laïc de Coordination)– was calling for the earlier political accord of 31 December 2016, to be honoured. At the heart of the protest was a rejection of violence in every form and of the self-perpetuating dictatorship of the regime, together with a demand for free and transparent elections and guarantees of peace. And also a warning that the postponement of the elections – ignoring the timetable published by the Independent National Election Committee – risked provoking a grave crisis. The 2016 New Year’s Eve accord had been brokered thanks to the mediation of the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo, as a framework for the organisation of democratic elections, given that the constitutional term of office of the incumbent President, Joseph Kabila, had come to an end and he was no longer legally entitled to stand for office.
Why the Catholic laity have played such an active part
The lay coordinating committee drew its inspiration from the message of the Congolese bishops at their Extraordinary Assembly of 22-24 November 2017, which declared: « Stand firm, people of the Congo; the country is in trouble. »
The statement by the bishops was a call to all Christians to « stand firm and unafraid » and quickly became the guiding principle for the laity in their decision to organise themselves in a « coordinating committee » for the defence of the democratic ideals secured by the accord and for the organisation of elections in the DR Congo. The committee was founded with the approval of the Archbishop of Kinshasa, strengthened likewise by the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium on the role of the Christian laity in the modern world,. Working in coordination with the Catholic clergy in Kinshasa via the parish Justice and Peace commissions, the committee strives to raise awareness of this responsibility. Its aim is also to overcome the crisis of confidence in the politicians, who have long been accused of inaction, striking deals, plotting behind closed doors, shady compromises and blatant corruption.
The impact of the Pope’s prayer for the country
The call by Pope Francis for a Day of Prayer for Peace on 23 February 2018, specifically for South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the grounds that that peace is essential to development, has been warmly welcomed in the local press as « an initiative coming from a great moral figure ». Though sources close to the president Kabila also questioned why the Holy Father had described the situation in the DRCongo as « grave ». However, an opposition spokesman welcomed the desire for peace that had prompted the Pope to express his concern for the grave crisis in Congo. Previously, Pope Francis had said that « prayer is capable of transforming the evil desires which inhabit the human heart ». Hence the lay coordinating committee felt justified in taking practical steps to call for the establishment of « the rule of law » in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Pope’s prayer for peace was also seen as « an important political statement, promoting the cause of peace and an end to the violence and bloodshed », which is spreading like a gangrene in the country, or like a virus in the human body.
At the national level, the bishops’ conference has called for prayer (specifically Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary (and especially the Sorrowful Mysteries), fasting and almsgiving).
Support from the bishops’ conferences of Niger, Burkina Faso and Madagascar likewise testifies to the strength of prayer and the belief in peace among the African bishops, and since 23 February there has been a notable flurry of diplomatic activity in Kinshasa, with visits from the presidents of various countries of central and southern Africa.
Reactions of other faiths
Recently there has been a noticeable change in attitude, including among many people of other faiths. The feeling of intimidation is beginning to fade and more people are starting to stand up for their constitutional rights.
On the first march of 31 December 2017 the Muslims and the Christians of other denominations had stayed away. There was no involvement, no declaration on their part. However, on the eve of the march on 21 January 2018 many Protestant laity voiced their agreement and support for this action, and during the march a number of Christians from the evangelical communities mobilised alongside the Catholics, joining in the march on an individual basis. Some Muslim believers also expressed support, somewhat timidly, and were seen here and there, dressed in their tunics. And they also condemned the violence against the earlier marches of 31 December 2017.
During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity one Protestant pastor called on his followers to support the initiative of the Lay Coordination Committee, saying he wanted to see « peace and respect by the state for the rights of the citizen », and he himself joined in the march on 21 January 2018, calling for the government to respect the New Year’s Eve accord that had been signed in good faith. A similar appeal was launched in a communiqué from the Imam, as the representative of the Muslim community in the DR Congo.
Communities coming together in a common cause
The various different faith communities and religious groups have drawn closer together recently, conscious that they face the same realities in their towns and suburbs.
Many are now beginning to realise that the struggle for the respect of the constitution concerns them all. The high cost of living, the economic inflation and the shortage of basic essentials are things that affect everybody, regardless of religious faith or party political allegiance.
An example of this cooperation was seen the day before the march on 25 February, when the state television broadcast a message, allegedly by a group of Muslims close to president Kabila, calling for a counter march against the Catholic laity to gather on the highways and crossroads in front of the most visible parish churches. However, the Imam himself responded via a private radio channel denying the report and saying: « The Muslim laity are not organising any march » and that on the contrary the Muslim community was supporting the initiative by the Catholic laity.