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Church at helm of Congo protests: From state partner to 'spiritual opposition'

As President Kabila's rule has dragged on, the Catholic Church’s role in the political crisis has morphed from one of moral condemnation to active resistance. For today's Congolese, the church's vocal role is hardly surprising – but previous generations might have seen it differently.

Kenny Katombe/Reuters
Riot policemen attempt to block a Catholic priest and demonstrators during a protest against President Joseph Kabila, organized by the Catholic Church in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Jan. 21, 2018.

At first, they asked nicely.

At the end of 2016, as Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s second full term came to an end, leaders from the country’s powerful Roman Catholic Church nudged the president to sign an agreement with his political opposition. Mr. Kabila, they agreed, would call an election to choose his successor in 2017. In exchange, the opposition would let him stay in power till then.

That never happened.

And over the past year, as Kabila’s rule has dragged on, the Catholic Church’s role in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s political crisis has morphed from one of quiet moral condemnation to active resistance. Nearly all of Congo’s recent antigovernment protest marches – including several last weekend that saw at least two people killed – have begun on the steps of a Catholic Church. And the church’s leaders themselves have become among the president’s most outspoken critics.

“We can only denounce, condemn and stigmatize the behavior of our supposedly courageous men in uniform, who, sadly... are channeling barbarism,” Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, the archbishop of the capital, Kinshasa, and de facto leader of the Congolese Catholic Church, wrote in a statement earlier this year. “It’s time that truth won out over systematic lies, that mediocre figures stand down and that peace and justice reign in DR Congo.”

In many countries, this would be a surprisingly bold move for a staid and steady institution like the Catholic Church. For Congolese, however, it comes as little surprise – though in the church’s early years in the country, it was hardly dissenting.

“In Congo, the church is our father and our mother,” says Claude Kabemba, director of the Southern Africa Resource Watch and an expert on Congolese politics. “The state has collapsed. It can’t provide services. For many people the church is far more present in their lives than government has ever been.”

From ally to opposition

For decades, indeed, the Catholic Church has operated like a kind of parallel government in Congo, privately providing health care, education, and other social services in areas beyond Kinshasa’s reach. And in the fractured jigsaw of Congo, where rebel groups hold control of large swaths of the country’s east and center and more than 4 million people are displaced from their homes, there are many places that fit that bill.

Meanwhile, as successive Congolese governments have cracked down hard on opposition politicians, the church has repeatedly “filled that vacuum of speaking out against corrupt regimes,” Mr. Kabemba says. “They are our spiritual opposition.”

But it wasn’t always that way.

Before Congo’s independence, the Catholic Church was among the closest allies of the Belgian colonists, spreading the gospel as part of a “civilizing mission” designed to create obedient, Westernized subjects.

“Government servants are not working alone in the task of civilization,” explained a handbook given to early Belgian civil servants sent to Congo. “The religious orders are participating in at least equal measure.”

By the late 1950s, a majority of Congolese schools were run by the Catholic Church, along with thousands of its hospitals, clinics, and businesses. For many Congolese, there was little distinction between the white men in suits who filled the government buildings of Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) and the white men in frocks who ran its churches.

“For our people, the Church was the State, and the State was the Church,” under the Belgians, Joseph Malula, a cardinal in the early post-colonial church, explained after independence. “They considered religion as a matter for the whites.”

But in the early years after Congo’s independence in 1960, the church’s role began to take a sharp turn. After coming to power in 1965, Mobutu Sese Seko, the flamboyant dictator who would rule the country until the mid-1990s, began an aggressive campaign of authenticité to snuff out Western influence in Congo. He changed the names of major cities – and later the country itself – and outlawed Western-style suits. All Congolese were required to abandon their Christian names for African ones, and Christmas was eliminated as a national holiday. By the 1970s, Mobutu had nationalized the country’s best Catholic university, forced Cardinal Malula into exile in the Vatican, and decreed that all religious instruction in schools would be replaced by the teaching of Mobutisme.

This last move was particularly unpalatable to the Catholic Church, which had long run the majority of Congo’s schools. Bishops protested, and as Mobutu’s kleptocratic regime became more and more unpopular, their star as a voice of dissent against the country’s dictator rose.

“At the present hour we are witnessing an internal colonialism: a class of rich people ... whose wealth rests on the misery of millions,” wrote the archbishop of the city of Kananga in 1975, criticizing corruption and a declining economy. (By the late 1970s, staring into near-empty government coffers, Mobutu agreed to return control of most of the country’s schools to religious organizations.)

It didn’t hurt, either, that many Congolese – especially in rural areas – had far more contact with church leaders than government ones.

'I pray even for Kabila'

Today, about half of Congolese are practicing Catholics, but the church’s role as a kind of stand-in welfare state means they have “unusually high social legitimacy and political clout, even among non-churchgoers,” says Ben Payton, head of Africa research at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

But that has not always been enough. In Congo’s 2011 election, which was widely criticized for lack of transparency, the Catholic Church was the only institution in the country with election observers in every constituency – sounded an early alarm about voter suppression and fraud. Buckling to pressure both in and outside the country, however, they eventually chose to let Kabila’s reelection stand, hoping he would honor his term limit and step down in 2016.

When he didn’t, the demonstrations began. Congolese security forces killed at least 53 people in protests between April and October 2017, according to the church. And in a series of major protest marches outside Catholic Churches since December, Congolese security forces have repeatedly used live ammunition and tear gas against protesters, killing several additional demonstrators. At least five people died on a single day – New Year’s Eve – last year. (Protest organizers say 12 marchers were killed.)

The violence drew international condemnation, including from the Vatican. “I … renew my appeal that everyone make all efforts to avoid any form of violence,” Pope Francis pleaded during his weekly general address on Jan. 24. “From its side, the church wants nothing other than to contribute to peace and to the common good of society.”

The government, meanwhile, has repeatedly attacked the church’s involvement in organizing the demonstrations.

"I don’t have my Bible right here with me ... but nowhere in the Bible is it written that Jesus Christ presided over an electoral commission,” said Kabila in a January press conference – the first he had given in five years. “To Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. We must not mix the two [religion and politics], because the results will be negative.”

But in Pretoria, South Africa, one Congolese priest says his faith is what gives him hope as he watches the political uncertainty back home.

“I pray all the time for change,” says Father Emile, who asked that his last name not be used out of concern for his ability to return to Congo. “I pray even for Kabila, that he will be a good man, that he will do what is right for the people of Congo and leave office.”

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