YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – As conflict continues to escalate in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Catholic bishops are calling on regional leaders to “build bridges of peace.”
Members of the Association of Bishops’ Conferences of Central Africa (ACEAC), which includes the DRC, Rwanda and Burundi, were speaking Oct. 18 on the sidelines of the ongoing Synod of Bishops on synodality in Rome.
“Everything must be done to put an end to the suffering of the people of the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC),” the bishops said.
For over thirty years, eastern Congo been the center of violent conflict which has cost an estimated six million lives since 1996, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in world history. It has also led to the displacement of over 5 million people.
Despite a regional force that has been deployed to the region, the conflict has continued to escalate, as several countries, including the DRC, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, as well as around 120 armed groups, compete for minerals and other geopolitical considerations.
Within just the past few days, a raid during the night of Oct. 23-24 by suspected militants of the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces, a rebel group from Uganda operating in North Kivu province of the DRC, killed at least 26 civilians.
Last November, an East African Community Regional Force (EACRF), was deployed to the DRC to help quell the tensions. Its mandate was supposed to end on Sept. 8, but regional leaders recently extended it by three months to Dec. 8.
The force successfully facilitated a ceasefire in many places where the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) and the M23 rebel group had been engaged in severe fighting, but with scores of rebel movements operating in the region, the eastern DRC is still very much unsettled.
Pope Francis repeatedly has called for peace in the Central African nation. Earlier in the year, he visited the DRC.
“I carry within me, in prayer, the pain that you have endured for all too long” Francis said in a video message released on 2 July, 2022, before his visit to the DRC. He urged the people of the DRC not to let themselves “be robbed of hope.”
During his visit to the DRC in February,2023, Francis sought to address the root causes of the conflict, condemning “terrible forms of exploitation, unworthy of humanity” in a country where massive mineral resources have fueled war, displacement and hunger.
“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered,” Francis said.
ACEAC bishops expressed gratitude for those working to bring stability to the region.
“In the spirit of cooperation, ACEAC thanks all those, who, in the international community, in our governments, our institutions and our communities, work tirelessly and sometimes at the risk of their lives to restore the hope of justice and peace to our peoples,” they said in their Oct. 18 statement.
“On the other hand, we call on all those who continue to sow death, devastation and division in our region, from far or near, to listen to the Church’s call for universal solidarity and to be guided by the search for integral human development”, they said.
“Our common nature as migrants on this earth teaches us that we live from the fruits of the trees that others have planted. Let us not focus on destroying everything, including other human beings, but on planting more trees for future generations.”
The bishops called on young people from the three Great Lakes Nations (Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda) to “not give in to manipulation, incitement to hatred and division.”
“We will continue to accompany the peoples and public authorities of the region in the search for ways out of the security crisis in the border areas of our countries, and the implementation of peace-building mechanisms and development programs,” they said.
“We wish to revitalize our structures and commissions to accentuate the culture of peace and education in active non-violence, in order to prevent conflicts from escalating, or to manage them through positive approaches to dispute resolution.”
They said they were convinced that the peoples of Burundi, DRC and Rwanda want to live together in security, collaborating with each other and with governments to put an end to conflicts between states and between communities.
They called on Christians in the three countries to “journey together towards the renewal of conviviality, respect for life and the dignity of each person,” and expressed the desire to see God’s people in the Great Lakes “relieved of their suffering, assuming their diversity, living in security, collaborating with each other and with the authorities for good governance.”
They said they hoped that the “integral human development” of God’s people in the three nations will come to pass and that “the dignity of each person, the consolidation of peace” will be fostered.