After at least eight people died in anti-government protests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Sunday, the pope’s representative said the Archbishop of Kinshasa was the “only competent ecclesiastic authority” to say whether the demonstrations were in accordance with the social doctrine of the Church.
Meanwhile, the bishops’ conference issued a statement on Tuesday condemning what it called efforts to distort the message of the nuncio and some bishops, accusing some in the media of presenting their words as a condemnation of the demonstrations.
“This is not true. In truth, the dioceses that did not promote the demonstrations did not disapprove of them,” read the statement signed by Archbishop Marcel Utembi Tapa and Archbishop Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, the president and vice president of the bishops’ conference.
Congolese security forces killed at least seven people and at least one policeman died amid violence as more than a thousand people demonstrated in the capital against President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down from power, the United Nations mission in Congo and police said Sunday.
The bishops’ statement said they “deplored the attack on human life” and offered condolences to the families of the “innocent victims.”
They also called for a “serious and objective investigation” to determine who was responsible for the violence.
Catholic groups had called for peaceful demonstrations after Sunday Mass, one year after the Catholic Church oversaw the signing of a 2016 accord that set a new election date to ease tensions in the central African country.
In November, the bishops’ conference said Congo’s National Electoral Commission had failed to prepare the country for elections, as agreed to in the Dec. 31, 2016, accord. Elections were supposed to take place by the end of 2016; the commission said it will now be postponed until December 2018.
The government refused permits for the demonstrations Sunday, and shut down internet and SMS services countrywide ahead of the planned anti-government protests for what it called security reasons. These services were only restored on Tuesday.
The protests were promoted by the Lay Coordination Committee, and more than 160 Catholic churches participated in the demonstrations. At least 80 people were arrested during the manifestations, including a group of a dozen altar boys leading one of the marches.
Government forces disrupted the celebration of Mass, in an attempt to block the protests.
In their statement, the bishops condemned “the violation of freedom of worship guaranteed in any democratic state, the desecration of certain churches, and the physical aggression against the faithful, including Mass servers and priests.”
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres also expressed concern about the violence on Sunday evening, and called “on the government and national security forces to exercise restraint and to uphold the rights of the Congolese people to the freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.”
The UN statement also called the Church-sponsored accords “the only viable path to the holding of elections, the peaceful transfer of power and the consolidation of stability” in the Congo.
When contacted on Jan. 2 by Fides, the news agency of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the office of the apostolic nuncio to the Congo said “the promotion of social justice and the defense of the civil and political rights of citizens is an integral part of the social doctrine of the Church,” but added it was the place of the Archbishop of Kinshasa, not the Vatican, to say whether Sunday’s protests were legitimate.
Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, the head of the Kinshasa archdiocese, issued a statement at Christmas urging Catholics to denounce “actions and plans that are contrary to the peace of the nation and its people.”
The cardinal also condemned the use of “political tricks” to gain power, saying politics should be put at the service of the people and the building up of the nation.
Kabila has been in office for over 15 years, taking over from his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001. In 2006, an election confirmed him in his post. He was re-elected for a second mandate in 2011.
After Kabila’s failure to step down after the end of his second term in December 2016, as mandated by the constitution, protests left dozens of people dead.
The New Year’s Eve Agreements overseen by the Catholic hierarchy called for power sharing between Kabila’s party and opposition parties in the buildup to a presidential election at the end of December 2017, in which Kabila would not be a candidate.
Since then, the bishops’ conference has expressed its frustration with the government’s refusal to uphold its part of the agreement. In November, the conference issued a statement asking Kabila to officially declare he would not seek another term as president.
Catholics make up nearly half of Congo’s 80 million people, and the nation’s bishops are held in high respect by the people.
The Church operates much of the educational, medical, and social welfare infrastructure in the country, which has been plagued by conflicts for decades. Currently, fighting with rebel groups in the east and south of the country has killed thousands of people, and displaced millions more.
“The situation in Congo is deeply worrying,” Father Apollinaire Cibaka Cikongo.
The priest is a professor at the major seminary in Malole, in the south-central part of the country, which was attacked by rebels a year ago.
“The conditions regarding food supplies and healthcare are alarming, and access to such basic services as schooling, drinking water and electricity is still worse,” he told ACN News, the news service of Aid to the Church in Need.
“We are also suffering because of the lack of peace in the country; there is no security, and people’s fundamental civil and political rights are simply being trampled underfoot,” he said.
This article incorporated material from The Associated Press.