ROME – Bishops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Pope Francis is due to visit early next year, have lamented the “serious” state of violence in the country and have called for prayer and fasting, and a special march for peace.
In a Nov. 11 statement at the close of their Nov. 7-9 extraordinary plenary assembly, held in Kinshasa, the Congolese National Episcopal Conference (CENCO) said the situation “is serious. Our country is in danger!”
“Let’s not Balkanize the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” they said. “From north to south, from east to west, as well as in the diaspora, let us all stand up to safeguard the territorial integrity of our country.”
To this end, they invited Christians and all people of good will “to fast, to pray, to make gestures of solidarity” with those displaced by violence. They also invited faithful “to march peacefully on Sunday December 4th” for an end to the country’s cycle of violence.
The plea for peace and the announcement of the Dec. 4 march for peace comes as more than 100,000 people have fled their homes and dozens of others have been killed in a fresh bout of fighting between Congolese soldiers and the M23 rebel group.
In one of the world’s most lengthy and deadly conflicts, violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo erupted some 30 years ago and so far, has left more than six million people dead and has forced 4.5 million people from their homes.
Despite the presence of a large United Nations peacekeeping mission, over the past year violence in the country has again reignited as national security forces attempt to battle more than 100 armed groups, mostly in the country’s east.
Both the M23, which formed around a decade ago, and the Congolese army have accused one other of igniting the clashes that led to this most recent crisis.
Kenyan military forces have now joined the Congolese army in an attempt to quash resistance from rebel groups and bring peace, as the M23 and many other armed groups continue to fight for control of the mineral-rich Congo.
Pope Francis, who has made frequent pleas for peace in the Congo and has organized special prayer and fasting initiatives for an end to the violence plaguing the country, is set to visit during the first half of next year.
The pope was initially scheduled to make a joint trip to the Congo and South Sudan in July, however, he had to cancel the visit at the last minute due to ongoing osteoarthritis of the knee, which causes him severe pain, and which often confines him to a wheelchair or the use of a cane.
In an online conversation with university students throughout Africa earlier this month, Pope Francis announced that the visit to South Sudan and the Congo had been rescheduled for “early February,” and said he is optimistic about keeping being able to keep the appointment.
RELATED: Pope urges African youth to be protagonists in shaping future
A report recently published by the Congo’s Caritas branch reports that the uptick in fighting has caused a fresh wave of mass displacement, with some 400,000 people now on the move, both internally and externally.
Caritas Congo stated that the humanitarian situation is worrying, and that more than 2,600 refugees in central-eastern Congo are living in precarious conditions.
The conflict in the Congo is also wearing down the country’s relations with its neighbors, including Rwanda, which has accused the Congo of backing the M23 rebel group, which has claimed that it is defending the interests of ethnic Tutsis living in the Congo against Hutu militias.
In their statement, the Congolese bishops voiced concern over the “worrying security situation,” and stressed the responsibility of political and international leaders, as well as members of the armed forces and opposition groups have to bring the violence to an end.
They condemned what they said was “the complacency” of the international community toward multinationals and nations they accused of being “predators of our natural resources.”
This complacency, they said, “engages the grave responsibility of this same community which, in its duplicity, blows hot and cold.”
“We must not forget that beyond the natural resources, there is the Congolese people who need to live in peace. What kind of peacekeeping are we talking about when the number of dead continues to multiply?” they said.
National authorities must also do more, they said, insisting that “it is high time for the state to assure all citizens the most basic right to life and security, and to the country its territorial integrity.”
For this to be done, “the war effort is essential and must be effective,” the bishops said. To this end, they argued that it is “imperative” for national institutions and leaders to reduce their standard of living, “in order to renew our means of defense, modernize and consequently equip our army and properly motivate our security forces.”
A “broad national framework” must also be established in order to evaluate the efforts of authorities to obtain peace and security, and the results of those efforts, they said, insisting that this framework must go “beyond political affinities” and be capable of formulating new strategies.
The bishops also said they “deplore” what they argued is a lack of punishment for those identified as main actors in the violence, saying they want proof of their arrest and prosecution.
They also issued applauded the Congolese armed forces, saying the national situation “requires our valiant soldiers to have a high sense of patriotism, loyalty and sacrifice,” and voiced gratitude to the soldiers who are committed to defending the country and pursuing peace, even at the cost of their lives.
In a special appeal to political actors and members of the opposition, the bishops said the situation is “serious,” and that defending the nation “must not be left to the rulers alone.”
“At this crucial time, silence political differences and unite efforts to be stronger against the enemy,” they said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen