DR Congo

From mediator to mobiliser: The Catholic Church in DR Congo

John Wessels, AFP | Outside a Kinshasa church during marches against DR Congo President Joseph Kabila on January 21, 2018.
Text by: Florence RICHARD
5 min

After having played a mediating role in DR Congo’s political crisis, the Catholic Church is now defying Kinshasa. The latest peaceful protests, backed by the nation’s bishops, have been violently put down.


Rallying cries, rosaries and olive branches versus tear gas and live bullets. The toll after Sunday’s crackdown on peaceful marches organised in several DR Congo cities against President Joseph Kabila is high. At least six people were killed and scores injured, the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) in the country said. More than 100 were arrested, including 12 clerics according to the Congolese Association for Access to Justice (ACAJ). Six others had died on December 31 as authorities sought to disperse similar demonstrations, according to a UN source. Authorities consistently dispute such figures.

In the wake of Sunday’s crackdown, the UN and the European Union have this week both appealed for inquiries. On Tuesday, DR Congo’s Human Rights minister appeared to strike a similar note in an interview with FRANCE 24’s sister station, Radio France Internationale (RFI).

“Those responsible for these acts must be punished and prosecuted by Congolese justice,” Marie-Ange Mushobekwa, visiting Paris, told RFI.

The 46-year-old Kabila has been in power since 2001 and stayed on beyond the end of his constitutional term in December 2016. The current protest movement, initiated by the Secular Coordination Committee (CLC) backed by the Catholic Church, is demanding Kabila publicly declare that he will not run for a constitutionally prohibited third term. It also wants political prisoners freed, as mandated by the Saint-Sylvestre Accord that the bishops finally obtained in the final hours of 2016 after weeks of negotiations.

Agreed between the leadership majority and the opposition under the aegis of the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo (CENCO), the deal allowed Kabila to stay in office provided elections be held by the end of 2017. But in a twist last November, the electoral commission postponed that promised vote until December 23, 2018, reckoning that violence in Kasai Province had held up the census there. The delay was a heavy blow for the CENCO and certified in the opposition’s eyes that Kabila would not relinquish power.

The Catholic Church, weakened when the deal it brokered was not applied, had not yet officially associated itself with previous popular protests, all of which were prohibited and violently put down. But it broke that reserve in early January when Laurent Monsengwo, the highly influential cardinal and archbishop of Kinshasa, issued a scathing response to the crackdowns on the CLC’s first peaceful marches. “It is time for truth to win out over systemic lying, for the mediocre to clear out and for peace and justice to reign in DR Congo,” said Monsengwo, whom a Congolese newspaper online has called the “most listened to voice in the country” since veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi died in Brussels last February. The 84-year-old Kabila opponent’s demise left an anaemic and fragmented opposition, leaderless and unable to mobilise against the country’s leadership.

“The Church today is filling a vacuum, a political vacuum created by Tshisekedi’s death, hence what happened on December 31 and on Sunday,” RFI’s Christophe Boisbouvier told FRANCE 24. “And indeed the Cardinal-Archbishop of Kinshasa, Monseigneur Monsengwo is no longer merely a prelate, an important leader of the Catholic Church – since he was one of the 80 cardinals who elected the last pope, Francis, in Rome – but he is also, whether he wants it or not, a political figure.” So when Monsengwo urges the “mediocre” to step aside, says Boisbouvier, “He uses a phrase that has an enormous impact and that gives a lot of hope to a certain number of people who are fed up with the current regime.”

The Catholic Church historically has played a political and social role in DR Congo. This is not the first time that Monsengwo, who is close to Pope Francis, has confronted Kabila head-on. In December 2011, he publicly called into question the results of the presidential election Kabila won, saying they were “in accordance with neither the truth nor justice”. Monsengwo had also opposed Kabila’s father, Laurent, who led DR Congo from 1997 to 2001, when the cleric was bishop of Kisangani.

“The Church is one of the most structured institutions in Congo, which no doubt explains how it can play such a role in the mobilisation, more than the opposition can. One cannot have mobilisation without structure,” Mehdi Belaïd, a political science researcher at the University of Paris I, told FRANCE 24.

The recent peaceful marches, meanwhile, recall those of February 1992. Then, too, the “secular coordination committee” had organised “Christian marches” against the Mobutu dictatorship, which was accused at the time of not wanting to resume work toward a “national conference” meant to liberalise the regime. The repression that followed saw dozens of demonstrators killed.

“The Catholic Church is the only player still standing, Belgian expert Kris Berwoots wrote earlier this month in an op-ed in La Croix, a Catholic French daily newspaper. The DR Congo specialist suggested the church is also the only player that can mobilise. “It is the only truly national institution which, through its parishes, its network of associations and its involvement in the education and health sectors is omnipresent in the country,” Berwoots wrote. “One might imagine that if the conference of bishops decided tomorrow to spread a message, it would be read Sunday during mass in every parish.”

This article has been translated from the original, in French.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning