Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Timothy LongmanApril 02, 2001

The assassination of President Laurent Kabila in Kinshasa on Jan. 16 was but the latest violent episode in the tumultuous recent history of the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to Africa’s largest Catholic community. Having himself come to power in 1997 as head of an armed rebellion, Kabila spent much of his brief presidency fighting to stay in office. By the time of his death, Congo had descended into chaos, with warring African states using the country as a staging ground for their battles, competing rebel movements having occupied two-thirds of Congo’s territory, and the economy lying in shambles.

In the midst of this turmoil, Congo’s large Catholic Church has been troubled by disorder of its own. With nearly 30 million members (more than 60 percent of Congo’s population) and an extensive network of schools, hospitals and economic projects, the Catholic Church has long been a powerful force in Congo and an important voice for social justice. Yet deep internal divisions have compromised the effectiveness of church social and political engagement. The Catholic Church, instead of uniting the Congolese people across ethnic and regional lines, has often reflected and reproduced the social divisions that are at the root of the country’s conflict.

The Church in Congo

During the 30-year reign of Mobutu Sese Sekou, the man Kabila ousted as president, the Catholic Church was slow to emerge as a prophetic voice. In the early 1970’s, President Mobutu sought to rein in the power of the church by nationalizing church schools and hospitals, and in the ensuing conflict, Cardinal Joseph Malula was driven briefly into exile before a compromise was reached with the regime. In general, however, church leadership rarely confronted the Mobutu regime despite its brutality, severe corruption and gross mismanagement of the economy. According to Patrick Boyle, a professor at Loyola University Chicago, The ethnic, personal and ecclesiastical divisions among the bishops diminished the church’s capacity to take a prophetic stance and played into the hands of the regime. For most of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the bishops were too divided to serve as a unified voice of opposition.

In the early 1990’s, the Catholic Church finally emerged as a major voice for social change in Congo. After years of enduring the brutality, severe corruption and gross economic mismanagement of the Mobutu regime, the Congolese population began to mobilize in support of democratic reform, and the Catholic Church offered important support to the democracy movement. Catholic priests and lay leaders joined human rights and other civil society groups, and Catholic publications became important forums for dissent. The Congolese bishops’ conference (The Permanent Committee of Catholic Bishops) issued a series of stinging pastoral letters, remarkable for their explicit denunciation of Mobutu’s authoritarian practices. When a national conference convened in June 1991 to chart Congo’s future, the gathering of politicians, business elites and civil society activists selected Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kisangani as its president.

But Mobutu was a master politician who effectively used the strategy of divide-and-rule to disarm his opponents, and the church was not immune to this tactic. Frederic Etsou’s nomination as cardinal following Malula’s death sparked controversy because of Mobutu’s promotion of his candidacy. And Etsou’s subsequent opposition to anti-government and pro-national conference protests reinforced the perception that he was a Mobutu ally. Mobutu also helped subvert the national conference by exploiting ethnic and regional divisions, as well as the conflicting egos of opposition leaders. The Catholic bishops several times asserted their support of the national conference, but many democracy activists were ultimately disappointed in Archbishop Monsengwo for his failure to stand up effectively to Mobutu. The archbishop eventually resigned as president of the conference in 1996.

Divisions within the church leadership seem to have prevented the articulation of an effective response to the ethnic violence that Mobutu supporters launched in 1993 against Rwandans in Kivu and Kasaians in Shaba, as part of Mobutu’s divide-and-rule strategy. The practice of ethnic scapegoating, however, ultimately proved Mobutu’s undoing, as it drew Congo’s neighbors into the country’s conflicts. When over a million Rwandan Hutu fled into the eastern Congo region of Kivu following the 1994 genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda, Mobutu supporters used their arrival to inflame existing resentments against Congo’s native Hutu and Tutsi population. In late 1995 renewed attacks against Congolese Tutsi drove thousands to flee to Rwanda, and the new Tutsi-dominated government in Rwanda responded by arming Congolese Tutsi and launching an attack on both the Congolese army and the Hutu refugee camps. The rebellion gradually gained momentum as Uganda, Burundi and Angola joined in, and in May 1997 the rebels and their allies took the capital, installing Laurent Kabila as president.

Church leaders failed to play a decisive role in the 1996-97 war, as bishops remained divided over how to respond appropriately. The bishops’ conference called for an end to the war, but the church played little role in encouraging a peace settlement. Once Kabila took power, the church’s attitude reflected the country’s regional and ethnic divisions, as bishops from Kabila’s base of support in the south and east of Congo and those from ethnic groups involved in the rebellion generally supported him, while many in western Congo, including Kinshasa, resented Kabila’s reliance on the Rwandan army and on Congolese Tutsi. Anti-Rwandan sentiment ultimately drove Kabila to purge Tutsi from his regime and caused a break with Rwanda. When anti-Tutsi violence began in eastern Congo again in 1998, Rwanda once again invaded Congo, launching the war that continues today.

A Tale of Two Churches

A comparison of two dioceses, Goma and Bukavu, both located in the Kivu region on the border with Rwanda, can demonstrate the divisions plaguing the Catholic Church on a national level. These dioceses have been deeply affected by both Congolese wars, and both are now occupied by the Congolese Rally for Democracy (R.C.D.), the Rwandan-supported rebel movement, but the relationship of the church to the R.C.D. in the two regions could hardly be more different.

In Bukavu, the Catholic Church has been a consistent voice for social justice. Bukavu has among the most developed civil societies in Congo, in large part because of support from both Catholic and Protestant churches, and the churches in Bukavu were early supporters for the creation of the national conference. The archbishop of Bukavu, Christopher Munzihirwa, was a Jesuit well known as a supporter of democracy and human rights. When Rwanda first invaded eastern Congo in 1996, Munzihirwa vocally condemned the attacks on Rwandan refugee camps and the targeting of civilians. On Oct. 29, 1996, Munzihirwa was himself murdered, apparently by Rwandan soldiers.

Despite Munzihirwa’s assassination, his successor, Emmanuel Kataliko, continued the prophetic tradition, speaking out against various human rights abuses. When the second war began in July 1998, Kataliko became an outspoken critic of the Rwandan military presence in Kivu. While the first war garnered moderate public support as a means of ousting Mobutu, the second war has been massively unpopular with the population of Kivu, and many local residents have joined militia groups fighting the R.C.D. In retaliation, Rwandan and R.C.D. troops have targeted civilians in many communities. Catholic parishes and church institutions have become a major refuge for those threatened, and, apparently as a result, the R.C.D. has attacked churches, killing priests and religious and destroying property. When I was in Bukavu in March of last year, I spoke with several priests and other church employees who had themselves been attacked, and they explained how the church had become a bulwark for the population against the R.C.D. and its human rights abuses.

The conflict between the Catholic Church and the R.C.D. came to a boiling point last year when Archbishop Kataliko was refused entry into Bukavu upon returning from a trip to Kinshasa, where he had participated in a meeting of civil society organizations working to bring a peaceful settlement to the war. During his absence, a general strike aimed at driving the Rwandan army out of Bukavu shut down the town for several days, and when Kataliko attempted to return to Bukavu, the R.C.D. arrested him at the airport, accusing him of planning the demonstration. They took him to his home community in North Kivu and placed him under house arrest. In protest against Kataliko’s forced exile, the Catholic Church instituted a strike of its own, closing its schools, charity and development offices, and even canceled Sunday Masses for several weeks. The crisis gradually dissipated, and in September the R.C.D. allowed Kataliko to return to his diocese. In October, however, Kataliko died of a heart attack while on a visit in Rome. Although evidence revealed that he died of natural causes, many Congolese suspect foul play. Once again, however, the archbishop’s death has not quieted the voice of protest within the Bukavu church, as numerous priests and church organizations continue to denounce human rights abuses in the area.

In contrast, the Catholic Church in Goma has played a much less consistent prophetic role. In 1996, when other local ethnic groups attacked Tutsi, the churches played an important role in preventing massive loss of life. Many of the Congolese Tutsi whom I interviewed in Rwandan refugee camps at that time told me that priests, including Hutu priests, had barred the doors of their churches to death squads and arranged transportation to safety of those under threat. The archbishop of Goma, Faustin Ngabu, forcefully denounced the violence and went personally to the zone of conflict to attempt to calm the situation.

But when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (the predominantly Tutsi rebel movement that now controls the Rwandan government) attacked civilian Hutu refugees later that year, however, Ngabu refused to speak out. One Catholic official in Nairobi told me that he confronted Ngabu over his silence, and Ngabu told him it was not the concern of the church. The church in Goma has maintained a comfortable relationship with the R.C.D. and its Rwandan allies and has refused to denounce R.C.D. attacks on civilians, criticizing instead only human rights abuses by militia groups. While a few parishes and priests are known to be sympathetic to the plight of the population, many people, including some who had survived R.C.D. and R.P.F. attacks, told me that they did not trust the church in Goma, that they were afraid to bring their problems to the church because of its close alliance with the R.C.D. One diocesan official told me that his superiors had even prevented him from assisting political prisoners.

The Congolese nearly universally offer a single explanation for the Goma church’s pro-R.C.D. position: ethnicity. Like the R.P.F. and many of the leaders of R.C.D., a large portion of the priests in the Archdiocese of Goma are Tutsi, and many Congolese feel that they support the rebel movement out of ethnic loyalty. Archbishop Ngabu is himself a Hema, an ethnic group closely associated with the Tutsi. Several Catholic officials in East Africa have told me that Ngabu himself sets the tone for the diocese and that he is strongly biased against ethnic groups other than Tutsi and Hema. At the same time, some Tutsi in Bukavu claim that the church’s position there is driven by hatred of Tutsi, and they accuse the church of failing to denounce human rights violations against Tutsi.

Becoming One Body

As these two cases demonstrate, ethnic bias creates major problems for Congo’s Catholic Church. Congo has over 200 ethnic groups, and bishops have traditionally played an important role in seeing to it that their own ethnic communities get their fair share of national resourcesfrom both the church and the state. Ethnic groups without representation in the church leadership fear that they will be neglected by the church. This bias manifests itself in the church’s social engagement. The political pronouncements of bishops often seem to be based more on ethnic and regional loyalties than on theological principles, as the bishops support leaders popular with their constituencies and denounce those who are unpopular. With Congo currently deeply divided, with three competing rebel movements occupying much of the north and east of the country, the churches have not been able to unite themselves sufficiently to become strong advocates for a peaceful resolution to the bloody conflict.

According to many observers, Laurent Kabila’s death opens up new possibilities for a peace settlement between the warring parties, because he was a major obstacle to negotiations. Yet if the Catholic Church is going to play a supportive role in the effort to achieve peace and to rebuild Congo, it must struggle to overcome its own ethnic and regional cleavages. The lesson of Corinthians 12 still needs to be taken to heart by Catholics in Congo: For Christ is like a single body, with its many limbs and organs, which, many as they are, together make up one body.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

Pope Francis accepts the offertory gifts during Pentecost Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on May 19, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)
The pope devoted his entire Pentecost homily to describing how the Holy Spirit works in the lives of Christians with both “power and gentleness.”
Gerard O’ConnellMay 19, 2024
Today’s text from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith makes clear that henceforth, as a rule, the Holy See will not declare any alleged spiritual phenomenon, such as an apparition, as authentic‚ that is, “of divine origin.”
Gerard O’ConnellMay 17, 2024
Cardinal Robert McElroy, Bishop Robert Barron and Bishop Daniel Flores joined moderator Gloria Purvis for a roundtable discussion on the rise of polarization in the church.
Michael O’BrienMay 17, 2024
Whether carefully reflected upon or chosen at random, picking a confirmation name is a personal and spiritual journey for Catholics, reflecting a connection to the saints or a loved one and a commitment to embodying their virtues.
America StaffMay 17, 2024