NAIROBI, Kenya — The head of the Congolese bishops’ conference said church officials are very worried about continued attacks on civilians by armed groups, as reports of the death of dozen in a camp of internally displaced persons emerged.
At least 59 people in Plaine Savo displacement camp in the eastern province of Ituri were killed and about 40 others injured Feb. 1. The deaths have been blamed on a deadly association of ethnic Lendu group militias known as CODECO (Cooperative for the Development of Congo).
“The church is very worried about these attacks,” Archbishop Marcel Utembi Tapa of Kisangani, president of the bishops’ conference, told Catholic News Service. “Many people have died. We preach the life of the human being.”
The camp is home to nearly 24,000 people, who fled previous attacks in the area in 2019. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, the attackers had used guns and machetes to target the occupants of the camp. Many of the occupants were forced to flee and have sought refuge in a U.N. peacekeeping mission base.
Caitlin Brady, Congo country director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a statement after the attack that this was just the latest incident in a series.
“Plaine Savo is populated by families — vulnerable families who fled similar violence with their children and are seeking only the right to live in peace,” Brady said.
Agencies are reporting an escalation of attacks in Ituri. The region, and the North and South Kivu provinces in eastern Congo, are the focus of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or MONUSCO. The U.N. mission is one of the largest in the world, but its presence has erased militia attacks in the mineral-rich region.
The violence in eastern Congo has affected churches, with church leaders and lay Christians killed or abducted by the militants.
Congolese news agencies reported that Father Richard Masivi, parish priest at St. Michael Church in Kaseghe, in North Kivu, was shot to death late Feb. 2 as he headed home to his parish.
Some of the militant groups have demanded ransom for the release of the priests. Priests in the area say the militia actions have instilled fear among the local populations.
At the same time, some other priests and laypeople have disappeared without a trace. In 2016, Fathers Charles Kapasa and Jean Pierre Akilimali were kidnapped from the Parish of Notre Dame in Butembo-Beni diocese and have never been found. Three Assumptionist priests seized in 2012 in the same areas have never been found.
In June, two women were wounded in an improvised bomb blast in a Catholic church in Benin on a Sunday morning; the attack was blamed on Islamists. In February 2021, a Catholic church in a village in Ituri was burned in an Islamist attack that killed three soldiers and 13 civilians.
Recently, an Islamist militia has gained a foothold and stepped up action in eastern Congo. Church sources said the Allied Democratic Forces, an Islamist militia originally from Uganda, is driving a campaign of forced Islamization. The group, an affiliate of the Islamic State Central Africa Province, has been blamed for some of the most deadly massacres in the region.
Utembi Tapa confirmed Islamists were carrying out the attacks and said “the situation is complex.”
Contributing to this story was Godfrey Olukya in Uganda.