YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Just weeks after Pope Francis visited the country, the Catholic bishops in the Democratic Republic of Congo have again raised concerns over what they say is a “cynical plan” by foreign armies, rebel groups and multinational companies to balkanize the country.

The eastern part of the DRC has been plagued by violence for years, with dozens of rebel groups fighting each other and the government.

Francis visited the DRC from January 31 to February 3, where he met with victims of the violence in the east of the country.

Recently, an East African regional force was dispatched to help fight the rebels, but the bishops are concerned that these forces are becoming part of the problem.

In a February 16 memorandum addressed to President Felix Tshisekedi, the bishops raised the alarm that the presence of foreign troops, coming from the same countries which have been blamed for sponsoring the rebel groups, increases the possibility of the balkanization of the country.

Seven member states of the East African Community (EAC) agreed to deploy troops to eastern Congo in August last year to combat the many armed groups that have been fighting each other and government forces in that part of the country.

Their mandate was to “contain, defeat and eradicate negative forces” in the eastern DRC. The forces would operate in four Congolese Provinces: Ugandan troops would help fight the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel coalition fighting in North Kivu and which has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist organization; Kenyan troops would target other rebel groups in North Kivu; soldiers from Tanzania and Burundi operate in South Kivu; and the South Sudanese contingent would fight the remnants of the Lord Resistance Army in Haut-Uélé.

The bishops talked about “the serious deterioration of the security situation with the following consequences: The massacres of civilians, the massive displacement of populations and the violation of human rights. Today, this security crisis affects all sectors of national life.”

The bishops recalled the many initiatives that have been taken to resolve the crisis, including the extension of a state of emergency, the multiplication of the number of forces to fight the rebels, namely the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC,) the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), and the East Africa Community, EAC troops, coming in from Kenya, Burundi, Uganda, as well as officers of Rwanda, “…but peace is far from being restored,” the prelates said.

The bishops added that “the presence in the east of our country of troops or supervisory officers from the countries cited as aggressors of the DR Congo raises many questions.”

Rwanda, and to a lesser degree, Uganda have been blamed for supporting rebels in Eastern Congo.

Last year, Tshisekedi said on state television that he had no doubt that Rwandan President Paul Kagame was behind the escalating attacks by the M23 rebel group in the east of the country.

In their message, the country’s bishops said they had the feeling that “the Congolese population is trapped between wars of influence and the battle for control of its natural resources.”

“Don’t these dramatic events contribute to the implementation of our country’s balkanization plan?”

Also this month, the Catholic bishops in the Bukavu Episcopal Province in the east of the Congo expressed the same concerns, saying in a statement that EAC troops were in the region for suspicious reasons.

The bishops accused the soldiers of creating buffer zones in Kibumba to the north of the city of Goma, with the intention of blocking “any hope of reunification.”

“Is this a way of drawing the borders of a new country? Do we still have to doubt the effective balkanization of the national territory! Can we understand what is indeed the mission of the EAC troops in this situation?”

The national bishops’ conference, in the February 16 statement, proposed a broad range of approaches “to fight the negative forces that are sowing desolation in the east of the country.”

They said the Catholic Church, through its Justice and Peace Commission, could work collaboratively with communities to persuade the rebels to lay down their arms.

“Faced with this threat, the best barrier is to consolidate national cohesion and revive the patriotic spirit. It is appropriate to control certain opinion leaders who are known for their derogatory remarks and the political actors who disseminate speech inciting hatred and exclusion,” the prelates said.

They stressed the importance of setting up a broad national framework to assess the agreements and alliances “that would constitute obstacles in the efforts to save the homeland in order to adopt new strategies.”

They called on the government to strengthen the monitoring and control system following suspicions that funds allocated to soldiers fighting insurgents was being embezzled, and insisted the embezzlers need to be brought to book.

Noting that their primary concern was “the lives of our brothers and sisters who have been bruised for several decades and the future of the DR Congo,” the Church leaders called on the government to intensify its military response by encouraging more young people to enlist in the army.

“We will not hesitate to contribute to any initiative that will aim to guarantee national security, territorial integrity, the stability of the State and its institutions, social peace,” the bishops concluded.