Catholic worshipers in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital Kinshasa attended mass on Friday (February 23) to pray for peace, two days ahead of a planned march organised by the Catholic Church.
Tensions between the government and one of Congo’s most powerful institutions has risen as the church increasingly becomes a focal point for opposition to president Joseph Kabila’s efforts to stay in power without a mandate.
Security forces killed about a dozen protesters in two previous demonstrations in December and January organised by the Catholic church, drawing widespread international condemnation.
Many of those who went to mass on Friday said they hoped peace prevails on Sunday, but that they support the church as it has offered hope for change in the country.
“There is no peace here, if there was peace, people would eat better, people would walk around freely and live with joy. But there is only suffering when yo look at the faces of Congolese people,” said Sister Astrid.
“The Democratic Republic of Congo is going from worse to worse. I don’t think I have ever heard a Pope ask people to pray as much as the Pope Francis has, you would think he is Congolese. He does that because we have a lot of problems,” said worshiper, Arsene Makulu.
Congo’s influential Roman Catholic Church has emerged as a flashpoint for opposition to Kabila, while his political opposition remains flimsy and divided.
Priests such as Jean Yongo say they are determined more than ever to continue fighting against what they see as an illegal regime.
“We will not give up, we will continue our peaceful protests and it will take however long it takes. But we are hopeful as Christians that one day, we will live in a free country where freedom is key and for all Congolese,” Yongo said.
The Catholic Church is one of the few institutions in Congo to enjoy broad credibility. Some 40 percent of the population identifies as Catholic and the Church has long filled voids in education, healthcare and other services left by an absent state.
Its bishops have frequently spoken out against human rights abuses by the government and alleged plans by Kabila to remove term limits that forbid him to run for re-election.
However, it reverted to a more neutral posture as Kabila’s mandate expired in December 2016 in order to broker a deal between the ruling coalition and opposition leaders.
Under the December 31 agreement, Kabila was permitted to stay in office beyond the expiry of his mandate but was required to step down after an election in 2017, which did not happen.
Congo’s electoral commission said the vote could not be organized until December 2018, reviving suspicions that Kabila intends to cling to power.
Kabila denies those charges and blames the delays on a slow voter registration process.
Political analyst, professor Arsene Mwake says the church’s changing role from mediator to mobiliser comes at a crucial time.
“The situation we are currently living in is one where we have seen a divided and fractured opposition, an opposition that is fighting itself. Those who left the opposition fight with those who are still in the opposition, and that’s what has made them weak. Which means that the people now need a new symbol, they need new leadership and that means that the Catholic church is the one that has filled the gap, and everyone is following their leadership whether they are protestant or Muslim, they are all following the leadership of the church,” he said.
As the political crisis has dragged on Congo has experienced a spike in violence by armed groups, particularly in the restive east, which many fear could plunge the country back into the kind of conflict in which millions died at the turn of the century.