Violence convulses DRC, targets the Church

"The Catholic Church in this country never let itself be co-opted by any political group. Now attempts are being made to embroil the Church in the conflict."

By Maria Lozano

NEW YORK—The rector of a seminary in the Democratic Republic of Congo refused a militia’s request for space on its grounds. In the wake of authorities’ crackdown on the militia, its members attacked and gravely damaged the seminary.

It was one of several incidents in recent months that saw the Catholic Church in DRC become the target of violence by groups with a range of motivations. Some of them are political, as the Church acted as mediator in forging an accord between the country’s president and the opposition—a role the Church has since given up.

Father Richard Kitengie Muembo, rector of Christ the King Theological Seminary in Malole in DRC, which was partially set on fire and destroyed on Feb. 18, 2017, described a chaotic scene, as the 77 seminarians had to be evacuated on the eve of the attack. In the end, UN troops had to come to their rescue.

A room at the Malole seminary after the attack.jpg

The militia is loyal to the late tribal leader Jean-Pierre Kamwina Nsapu Pandi, who had contested the legitimacy of the central government, calling for a rebellion and attacking the local police—whom he accused of abuse of power—as well as rival communities. Kamwina Nsapu was killed by security forces last summer. However, his forces have kept up armed resistance, which to-date has led to the death of at least 400 civilians and an untold number of security forces.

On March 31, the rebel forces attacked the city Luebo, setting fire to the Catholic schools office of the local diocese, destroying a novitiate of women religious, and desecrating the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Father Kitengie Muembo told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that “the Catholic Church is highly respected in this country because it has never let itself be co-opted by any political group. Now attempts are being made to embroil the Church in the conflict.”

The Church insists it is not taking sides, also accusing the government for authorizing overly harsh measures on the part of security forces and not tackling grave unemployment, both factors in the ongoing unrest in DRC. Young people are targets for recruitment by various militia. The crisis in Kasai caused by Kamwina-Nsapu militia in the southern part of the country is one of five armed conflicts in DRC.

Father Richard Kitengie Muembo is hopeful his seminary will eventually be repaired and reopened, pending a measure of peace returning to the region. He said: “The Catholic Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo is in the same situation as all of the Congolese people. Parts of the population are hiding in the jungle. Schools have been closed, hunger reigns … We dream of an end to this pointless war. Looters from all over the world come here to exploit the country.”

The priest also charged that “anyone who uses modern technology nowadays is in some way using the blood of the Congolese people,” the priest pointed out. In this, he is making reference to coltan, a black ore made of columbite and tantalite which is used in the production of batteries for mobile phones and other digital devices. Coltan is considered to be one of the so-called “blood ores,” as its extraction involves human-rights violations and is helps finance armed groups.

In 2016, ACN spent more than $3.5M to fund projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including the support of 41 seminaries, which benefited a total of 1,229 seminarians.

A room in the Malole seminary after the attack; ACN photo

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