YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Aid to the Church in Need, a papal charity that aids persecuted Christians worldwide, has provided some 70 communities of nuns working in the Democratic Republic of Congo with a relief package of roughly $140,000 to help them cope with the double whammy of insecurity and the COVID-19 pandemic.

For over 20 years, eastern Congo has been hit by war and conflict, with rival gangs fighting for control over the region’s rich mineral resources. While other aid organizations and NGOs have fled the area as a result of rising insecurity, religious sisters have remained.

“The religious sisters of the Church are amazing,” said Edward F. Clancy, Director of Outreach for Aid to the Church in Need USA.

“There are so many communities that serve in these most difficult of places,” he told Crux.

“In the best of times, life in the region around Bukavu is extremely difficult. This area is afflicted by ethnic conflicts, armed incursions from neighboring countries, kidnappings and rape are frequent and there are so many people living in poverty.”

Clancy said the continued presence of the religious sisters in the area, even at the risk of their own lives constitutes “the very definition of agape, self-giving love.”

“One of the many graces of religious communities is that they serve the people with such devotion that are willing to sacrifice their lives in this way.  They make the people an inseparable part of their lives.”

Christine du Coudray, head of DRC projects for the group, noted that the Church and in particular the religious are still there, “close to the most severely disadvantaged groups, like good souls, unrecognized but fully in the spirit of Mother Teresa.”

“How often have I visited them after yet another attack by rival gangs, after they became victims of rape and massacres that spared no one, after they survived earthquakes, landslides or awe-inspiring floods, as has just happened in Uvira [some 60 miles south of Bukavu] – catastrophes that obliterate everything in their wake and cut a wide swathe of destruction,” she added.

Even as insecurity makes working in such environments tenuous, COVID-19 has worsened the situation.

“With the arrival of COVID and the lockdowns, the means of sustenance has now been taken away from many communities of nuns threatening their presence to serve the people so much in need,” Clancy told Crux.

“Wages were stopped in DR Congo after the government declared a state of emergency on March 24,” he said. “Contributions from the local parishes and communities have all but disappeared.”

What’s more, Clancy said, medical workers, a group that includes many religious sisters, are compensated based upon the number of patients they treat. However, because of fear of becoming infected with the coronavirus, people are currently reluctant to go to hospitals for care and the sisters are receiving very little compensation. With school closings because of the COVID-19 pandemic, religious who work in schools and depend upon the contributions from parents of students towards their living expenses have now lost this means of support.

“For four months, religious have suffered drastic cuts in support and even a complete loss of income,” he explained.

Clancy said with the economic stress caused by shutdowns, the lives of those living on the edge of abject poverty have worsened and the area’s stability is being ever more challenged and very well could be “at a breaking point.”

Noting that without help, the work of the religious in the area would be seriously limited, and their lives endangered, Clancy said the ACN aid package “ will help the religious communities to physically survive this economic crisis and remain with the people they serve. “

Aid to the Church in Need also offered assistance to priests in the Congo at the onset of the crisis. Without Sunday collections or other sources of income resulting from the COVID-related suspension of pastoral and other community work, many priests could no longer earn a living or go on pastoral duties, said the Bishop of the Diocese of Mbuji-Mayi, Bishop Bernard Emmanuel Kasanda Mulenga.

“In normal times, the faithful support the priests with food and other donations,” he said.

Because people have to stay home, Kasanda said, “everyone’s life is much more difficult than it was before because the majority of the people are affected by the very high unemployment rate (almost 96 percent) and are just somehow muddling through from one day to the next.”

Religious in the DRC have been appreciative. In April, Monsignor Richard Kitengie of the Diocese of Kabinda, where priests received a $20,310 aid package from Aid to the Church in Need, expressed gratitude in a letter.

“With the latest measures taken to limit the spread of COVID-19, our priests who live mainly on Sunday offerings are experiencing great difficulties and can no longer meet their basic needs,” he wrote. “Your financial assistance is welcomed as a heavenly intervention.”

Among the beneficiaries of the financial package were 40 priests in the diocese of Kilwa-Kasenga, with Father André Mpundu noting that the assistance will “secure our livelihood and safeguard the lives of thousands of believers who, through our humble efforts, hear the Holy Word of God and can receive the sacraments.”