Despite its natural wealth of Congo-Brazzaville, a leading Catholic charity official says the people are very poor, “not only financially, but morally, too.”

Congo-Brazzaville, also known as the Republic of the Congo, is an African nation formally ruled by France, and borders Angola, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The central African country has a population of 5.6 million people. According to the CIA World Factbook, Catholics constituted 33.3 percent of the population of Congo-Brazzaville in 2019, closely followed by the Awakening/Revival churches with 22.3 percent and other Protestants making up 19.9 percent.

Maxime François-Marsal, the coordinator of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) projects in French-speaking Africa, travelled to Congo-Brazzaville late last year, and said it has a turbulent history, which has left its mark on the population.

“Despite its natural wealth, and income generated by exports of wood and oil, the people are very poor, not only financially, but morally, too,” he told ACN.

Since 2017, Aid to the Church in Need has funded more than 200 projects in Congo-Brazzaville: the formation of over 1,700 seminarians, as well as the provision of Mass stipends, catechetical materials, and parish houses, all contributing to the mission of the Church in the country. The charity has also supported construction and transportation projects to strengthen pastoral work.

François-Marsal noted Congo-Brazzaville went through a terrible war at the end of the 1970s, which saw the current President Denis Nguesso, a military man, rise to power.

Cardinal Émile Biayenda – the country’s first cardinal – was murdered in 1977 by a group of soldiers.

In 1997, forces loyal to Nguesso fought in another civil war against supporters of Pascal Lissouba, who had been elected President of the Republic in 1992. As a result of that war, Lissouba had to go into exile.

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“All of this had a deep effect on the people. Thousands were killed and displaced. Nguesso has been in power since then, and people live their daily lives, just trying to survive and find some peace,” François-Marsal said.

Speaking about the role of the Church in Congo-Brazzaville, the ACN official said it acts with a certain amount of freedom, “but that has not always been the case.”

“The country was a French colony and gained independence in 1960. After that, in 1970, there was a period of socialism, with terrible consequences for the Church,” he said.

“One day, with no prior warning, the socialist government nationalized all Catholic schools and imposed restrictions on religious activities, as well as on Church participation in public affairs. Until 1991, the national flag was red, with the hammer and sickle as the national symbols,” he continued.

François-Marsal told ACN the Church has regained some of that lost ground, but there is still very much to do.

“In other countries, like  Cameroon for instance, about 50 percent of the schools are Church-run, while in the Congo, only about 10 percent of them are,” he said.

He said the people of the faithful still remember the murder of Bianyenda, who was named a Servant of God by Pope St. John Paul II in 1995.

“He is greatly beloved because he was a man who strived for peace. Even the non-Catholics admire and respect him,” François-Marsal said about the cardinal.

“He was murdered in 1977, at the start of the civil war. In the course of one week, three very important national figures were murdered: Then-President Marien Ngouabi, Cardinal Biayenda, and former President Alphonse Massamba-Débat, who was executed,” he said.

“The cardinal urged people to ‘stay calm and trust in God.’ And despite the growing danger, he refused to leave the country, saying: ‘I would gladly give my life for Christ.’ Unfortunately, a few hours later, he was shot. There is currently a cause open for his beatification,” François-Marsal added.

However, the ACN presentative noted the challenges facing the Church in Congo-Brazzaville, including few vocations for the religious life among women, and the “worrying” rise of Protestant sects.

“Poverty fills people with despair, and the fight for survival is extremely tough. But I believe that the Church in Congo-Brazzaville is full of wonderful people and exceptional priests. They need us to give them hope, and to help their communities prosper,” François-Marsal said.