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Congo bishop, religious forced into jungle

NCR Staff

A Catholic bishop and most of the priests and religious in his Congo diocese were forced in mid-April to take refuge in the jungle, as the latest civil war in that central African nation drags on.

Though Western attention is focused on the crisis in the Balkans, observers say the African conflict raises equally critical security issues.

Bishop Stanislaus Lukumwena, a Franciscan, along with 13 priests and 15 novices and professed sisters, abandoned the diocese of Kole on April 13 after a detachment of 4,000 government troops descended on the area.

In successive days, other priests, sisters, seminarians and pastoral workers fled the diocese. After almost a month in the bush, Lukumwena and the others eventually reached safety in the neighboring diocese of Kananga, Franciscan headquarters in Rome told NCR.

Lukumwena reported that his bishop’s residence and most of the parishes in Kole had been plundered by government troops fleeing a confrontation with rebel forces, according to Jean-Bosco Matand, general secretary of the Congo bishops conference. Matand spoke to NCR via E-mail.

Lukumwena, 49, is apparently the first Congo bishop to be forced out of his diocese as a result of the fighting.

Also in the Kole region, a Catholic priest was killed on April 7 by a rebel faction that had accused him of supplying information to the government.

Fr. Tongele Ngbatana, a Congolese priest working in the Sacramento diocese, told NCR that Lukumwena’s flight is not surprising. “When a new militia comes into town, that’s what you do,” he said. “You head for the jungle. Little by little people trickle back in to see what’s going on.

“Most of the soldiers in the Congo aren’t professionals,” Ngbatana said. “They were trained quickly to get them into combat and they abide by no rules. Wherever they go they make themselves kings, ruling and killing whomever they want.”

The Congo -- known as Zaire until the government of former president Mobutu Sese Seko fell in 1996 -- is a nation of 47 million, approximately half of whom are Catholics. Kole is located in the center of the country, near a major diamond mine coveted by both the government and the rebels.

The Congo first erupted in civil war in the mid-1990s. To combat Hutu militias along the Congo’s eastern border, Rwanda and Uganda supported a rebellion led by Laurent Kabila, now the country’s ruler.

Once in power, however, Kabila turned on his allies. On Aug. 2, 1998, a new uprising was launched against Kabila, funded by Rwanda and Uganda. To combat it, Kabila appealed for help to Angola and Zimbabwe. At different times the armies of eight African nations have had troops in the Congo.

Observers say the war has ground to a stalemate, with rebels controlling some eastern provinces and key airports, but Kabila in command elsewhere.

The Catholic bishops of Congo issued a statement denouncing the war and offering proposals for peace in mid-November (NCR, Dec. 4, 1998).

“This conference [of Congo bishops] is convinced that the war -- as well as many wars in the African continent -- could find a good solution if the American and European people, above all the Catholics, were aware of the real situation in Africa in general and the Congo in particular,” Matand told NCR.

“Such awareness of what is going on, and what the aspirations of the African people are, surely corresponds to the conception of the church as a family of God.”

The Congo is rich in natural resources. Its mines yield cobalt, gold, uranium and diamonds. The uranium used in the U.S. bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from the Congo. One-fifth of the world’s forests are in the Congo, and the country is said to possess sufficient arable land to feed the entire continent if it were not for constant warfare.

Hopes for peace have been buoyed recently by the intervention of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who brokered a peace accord in early May. However, neither the rebel forces nor Rwanda signed on, making the agreement’s short-term prospects appear dubious.

Ngbatana said he is frustrated that the war in the Congo has received such scant attention in comparison to Kosovo or Iraq. “What gold and diamonds do we get from Kosovo?” he said.

He warned that the United States and other Western powers are becoming increasingly unpopular in central Africa. “A new order is designing itself,” he said, in which Libya and the rhetoric of anti-imperialism will play a much larger role.

“The U.S. must help the parties in these countries find a solution,” he said. “Otherwise they may find one day that the Congo is no longer a friend.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1999