In other parts of the world, when a Catholic bishop appeals to young people, it’s usually either a moral exhortation – stay off drugs, stay in school, obey your parents, and so on – or a call to get involved in a church project, such as attending a World Youth Day or coming over to help fix the parish roof.
It says something about the perilous state of eastern Congo, therefore, that when Bishop Melchisédech Sikuli Paluku of Butembo-Beni appealed to young people for help on Aug. 5, it was for a much more dramatic end – to keep his priests alive and safe.
In an August 5 homily at his cathedral in Butembo in the Democratic Republic of Congo, during a Mass celebrating his 19 years as the bishop, Sikuli called on local youth to take responsibility for protecting “your priests.”
“Do not be like Cain who asked, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’” Sikuli said. “Let us protect each other. At this very moment, I urge young people to keep their priests safe.
“As priests show us their joy, courage and strength, let’s keep those we send to you as priests safe, because it’s God who entrusted us with this mission here on earth,” he said.
Sikuli’s appeal came after two priests from his diocese, Charles Kipasa and Jean-Pierre Akilimali, were abducted at gunpoint from Our Lady of the Angels parish in Bunyuka on July 17. Three other priests abducted in the same area in October 2012, still have not been freed.
The North Kivu area of eastern Congo, which borders Uganda and Rwanda, is a minerals-rich region as well as a tinderbox of ethnic and political tensions, and has been the scene of violence and armed conflict among competing armies, para-military groups, and armed criminal gangs for the last two decades.
The lion’s share of the world’s deposits of cobalt, for instance, an essential mineral in the manufacture of cell phone batteries, is found in Eastern Congo, worth an estimated $10 billion annually for whomever controls the deposits. The area is currently home to a number of armed factions, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda as well as Nyatura and Mai Mai rebel groups.
Observers say it’s a largely lawless region where the national government exercises little effective control, and power belongs to whichever faction is heavily armed enough to grab it. Sikuli’s diocese in particular has been deeply unstable for the last two years, amid a series of civilian massacres that have left hundreds of people dead.
Whenever violence spikes in Congo, so too do attacks on Christian targets, generally because Christian churches and their personnel are often the lone social institution that doesn’t pull out of the affected areas. The DRC is roughly 95 percent Christian, with the Catholic Church the largest single denomination, claiming 35 million of the country’s 71 million people.
In some cases, the killing of Congolese Christians has seemed deliberately calculated to intimidate and muzzle criticism of the militias.
In December 2009, for instance, Father Daniel Cizimya Nakamaga, 51, was shot in the head at point-blank range when gunmen broke into his presbytery during the night in Kabare, outside the Eastern Congolese city of Bukavu.
Less than 48 hours later, attackers struck at a nearby Trappist monastery, murdering Sister Denise Kahambu. The nun had been the monastery’s guest mistress, and when she opened the door to these strangers, they chased her down a hallway, shot her to death, and left her in a pool of her own blood.
Because the assailants didn’t steal anything and left the other sisters alone, the conclusion was that it had been an “intimidation” killing.
Many observers drew the same conclusion from the November 2010 murder of Father Christian Mbusa Bakulene, the pastor of St. John the Baptist’s Church in Kanyabayonga in the province of North Kivu. The priest and a parish worker were returning to the church when two men in military uniforms stopped them and asked, ‘Which one of you is the priest?”
They shot Bakulene while leaving his companion unharmed, prompting most observers to conclude that the aim was to frighten priests either into silence or flight.
Also among the victims is a Catholic nun named Sister Liliane Mapalayi, who was stabbed to death on February 2, 2012 in Kananga, in western Kasai. Mapalayi worked in a high school run by her congregation, and was attacked while in her office at school.
On hearing the screams, the director of the school and a nun rushed into Mapalayi’s office, who died in their arms with a kitchen knife stabbed in her heart. Sources say that militants and criminal bands had threatened the school before, but Mapalayi refused to leave.
Sikuli suggested that he too is one of those clergy who needs local youth to have his back, telling them August 5 Mass that there have been threats against his own life.
“I didn’t know I would make it all these years as the head of our diocese,” Sikuli said.
“In recent days, unknown people have sent me messages telling me to be careful here in Butembo, because the bishop prevents many people from reaching their aims,” he said, referring to the objectives of armed groups and criminal gangs.
“That’s the way we’ve lived for 19 years,” Sikuli said. “All of us must pray to God to grant us grace.”