Democratic Republic of Congo: A spirit of resistance
It is a bold move, and one that might just be working: the Catholic Church has stepped firmly into the political arena in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it is making waves.
Over the past year, the country has sunk deeper into a political crisis, and the religious institution has gradually emerged as a force to be reckoned with, capable of harnessing its spiritual influence to mobilise people and posing a serious threat to President Joseph Kabila’s authority — so much so that the president was forced to hold his first press conference in five years last Friday.
"We have to have elections as scheduled," Kabila assured the gathered journalists, referring to the deadline of December 23 this year that was announced in November.
His surprise public appearance was clearly (though not officially) in reaction to the international outcry that followed the violent repression of demonstrations organised by a Catholic group and supported by the church on January 21.
At least seven people were killed by Congolese security forces, including a young woman who aspired to become a nun. At least 111 were arrested, among them 12 priests. In a convent, babies were suffocated by tear gas, and required intensive medical care. The bloodshed has been firmly condemned by the AU, the EU, and the UN.
From Peru, where he was conducting mass, the Pope himself called on Catholics around the world to pray for the Congolese demonstrators.
Most importantly, it has laid bare the rift between Kabila’s regime and the Catholic Church, still one of the most (if not the most) influential institutions in the country.
For months at the end of 2016 the church had put its faith into mediating a solution between Kabila’s followers and the Congolese opposition, hoping to avoid widespread violence as Kabila’s final mandate ended on December 19. The negotiations, led by the National Episcopal Conference of Congo, a college of bishops, culminated in the Sylvester agreement which was signed on New Year’s Eve (known as Sylvester) and included the promise to hold elections in 2017.
This, of course, never happened. On December 31, to mark the end of 2017 and still the absence of any elections, a Catholic group called the Comité Laïc de Co-ordination organised a demonstration that mobilised over a hundred parishes of Kinshasa, the capital, and more throughout the country.
The government’s reaction was brutal. As tanks were deployed and tear gas canisters thrown into churches, cardinal Laurent Monsengwo resolved to take a stand against what is increasingly taking the form of a dictatorship. On January 2, in a powerful address to his congregation, he said: "It is time for the truth to prevail over systemic lies, and for the mediocre leaders to leave."
Now that the gloves are off, it will be difficult for the church to retreat to the diplomatic role it assumed earlier in the crisis.
This could go either way. If the church succeeds in galvanising the opposition, building on its influence, infrastructure and unparalleled network, the events of the past weeks could represent a tipping point.
Certainly, the authorities’ disproportionate reaction to the Catholic demonstrators, as well as Kabila’s impromptu press conference, tend to show that the regime is intensely aware of the threat.
The church’s move is also likely to make other forces decide to move in. Earlier in January, pastor François-David Ekofo joined the criticism in a sermon at the Centenary Protestant Cathedral. "I like athletics, and especially the relay race," he said. "In the history of our country it should be the same too. We [should] take the témoin [baton] and pass it to another."
Many officials of the presidential majority were present, as were Kabila’s wife, children, sister and brother.
On the other hand, if the church is unable to sustain its appeal and put on the sort of relentless fight that will be necessary to bend the regime, Monsengwo’s stand may well have been the last card it will play. It would leave the Congolese population with no-one to turn to for support.