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Congo bishops reject war, call for new elections

NCR Staff

Catholic bishops of the Democratic Republic of Congo, meeting in a special session Nov. 2-7, condemned the outside forces -- especially those of Rwanda and Uganda --- currently fomenting civil war in their central African nation.

The bishops stopped short, however, of endorsing the government of current president Laurent Kabila, calling instead for democratic elections and a government of national unity.

“We denounce the aggression that has victimized our country,” the 24 bishops gathered in Kinshasa, the capital, wrote. “This aggression has given way to a war of great dimension, entailing today the military presence of eight countries on our territory, some to attack us, others to help us.”

“We do not want someone to impose leaders on us who would serve the interests of foreigners,” the bishops wrote.

“As with all wars, this one is causing massacres, lootings, groans, cries, rancor, revenge, ruin, debt: in brief, material and spiritual distress. Economic and social life is upset; families are broken and traumatized by rapes and the forced enrollment of their children in the armies. Entire populations desert villages to hide in the forest ... health centers are destroyed and schools closed. In this context, nobody is encouraged to undertake and sustain a project of development or to invest the small means available to reply to the challenge of national reconstruction.”

Congo, formerly known as Zaire, is a nation of 47 million. Slightly more than half the population is Catholic.

From the mid-1960s until 1996, Congo was ruled by Mobutu Sese Seko, a former general who banned multi-party democracy. In 1994, as ethnic violence erupted into genocide in neighboring Rwanda, refugees poured into Congo. To destroy what it saw as safe havens for ethnic Hutus inside Congo, Rwanda and Uganda backed rebel leader Laurent Kabila in toppling Mobutu.

Once in office, however, Kabila turned on his allies. In August a new civil war flared up between Rwandan and Ugandan-supported rebels and Kabila, now backed by Zimbabwe and Angola. Some observers charge Kabila with employing the same Hutu militias that massacred Tutsis inside Rwanda.

As the conflict escalated, Namibia, Chad, Sudan and Libya all sent forces into Congo hoping to cash in on the nation’s rich natural resources, especially its copper and cobalt mines.

The bishops laid out a six-point program for ending the violence:

  • Protection of Congo’s territorial integrity with a well-trained army;
  • negotiations leading to the rule of law;
  • a government of national unity;
  • democratic elections;
  • a constitutional settlement of the problem of nationality;
  • an international conference among central Africa nations.

The bishops also condemned xenophobia. “Cease to exploit the ideology of ethnocentrism with its tendency to exclusion and domination,” they wrote. “This ideology causes Africa to be always at war, making the continent a permanent market for the sale of arms and the exploitation of natural wealth. Our people have the right to live in unity and peace on their own land.”

Fr. Tongele Ngbatana, a Congolese priest currently working in the Sacramento, Calif., diocese, translated the bishops’ statement from the original French. He told NCR that Kabila has substantial popular support -- especially in the cities where he ended the corruption and harassment characteristic of the security forces under Mobutu.

Congolese young people are especially likely to embrace Kabila, Ngbatana said. Kabila won their respect when he forced international mining companies to renegotiate contracts signed under Mobutu, a move seen as standing up to Western imperialism. “When I visited in July, I saw tens of thousands of young people mobilizing to fight,” Ngbatana said. “They were saying we’re going to go fight against the Americans, the French, the Belgians, whoever. They saw Kabila as standing up to the West.”

Ngbatana said he hopes the bishops’ statement might create greater international interest in Congo’s predicament. “There’s a tremendous need to help Congo help itself,” Ngbatana said. “There’s a total population in this region of 150 million, and that’s a potentially great market of producers and consumers,” he said. “Helping this region will help the world economy.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998