NAIROBI, Kenya – Roman Catholic priests in eastern Congo are vowing to continue their work in parishes, schools and clinics after the murder of one of their brethren this week in the largely lawless region.

Priests and Catholic churches have long been the target of violence in the area. The killing Sunday (April 8) of Father Etienne Nsengiyumva, a parish priest in the Goma Diocese, was the second murder of a Catholic priest by militias in the last three years. A third priest was shot dead in 2010.

Also this month, Father Celestin Ngango was abducted as he prepared to leave his parish after Easter Sunday Mass; he was later released. His abductors had called his parish to demand $500,000 in ransom and later revised the figure to $50,000.

Nsengiyumva, 38, was killed after he celebrated Mass at his small church.

The gunman picked him out of a group and told him to stand up straight, Father Arsene Masumbuko, another Catholic priest who works in the diocese, told Religion News Service in a telephone interview.

“He shot him on the head, before spraying his body with bullets. … After that, he turned his gun on the people who had started fleeing. Some were shot in the head. Other militia who had been moving about also started firing.”

Church sources say the killings are revenge attacks by militia groups in the region, who want to silence priests and pastors for criticizing their abuses and plunder of local resources.

“Priests are living in fear, but they cannot leave the villages where they are with the people. They are running schools, hospitals and peace programs. They are the only hope,” said Masumbuko, who works for Caritas, a Catholic aid agency.

“With nobody providing services, the people depend on the churches. If the priest were to leave, that would be a bad witness of their mission.”

Part of Nsengiyumva’s mission was to reconcile conflicting communities in the area, where many ethnically based militias operate, Masumbuko added.

Church officials have blamed the priest’s death on the Mai Mai Nyatura militia in the North Kivu region, which includes the Goma Diocese. They say at least 15 armed groups operate in the area.

Elsewhere in Congo, Catholic bishops have recently been targeted for opposing President Joseph Kabila’s illegal extension of his second term, which was supposed to end in December 2016.

Catholic leaders in 2017 brokered an agreement that allowed him to retain his office until the end of that year, and required elections to be held. Kabila flouted the deal.

In the capital, Kinshasa, the central region of Kasai, and North Kivu and South Kivu, churches, convents and Catholic schools have been vandalized or looted by armed groups.

However, in the eastern region, where priests are most vulnerable and where Nsengiyumva was killed this week, the militia’s hostility toward Catholic priests predates the controversy over Kabila. Militias have been active there since 1993, according to Masumbuko.

With Nsengiyumva’s death, Catholic priests and other clergy have demanded better protection from the government.

The National Episcopal Conference of Congo “strongly condemns the assassination and demands an investigation to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice,” Father Donatien Nshole, the conference’s general secretary, said in a statement Wednesday.

The Catholic Church has paid a heavy price in the insecurity, while it worked for the nation’s good, said Nshole.

“This situation is intolerable.”