Congo-Brazzaville: A forgotten Church

In December, Maxime François-Marsal, the coordinator of ACN projects in French-speaking Africa, travelled to Congo-Brazzaville, also known as the Republic of the Congo, a nation that borders Angola, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others. In this interview, he speaks about the state of the Congolese Church and how ACN contributes to its development.  

Congo-Brazzaville isn’t in the news much. How would you describe the country? 

That’s true, you don’t hear much about this country, and what’s more, it is often confused with the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is much larger and is more widely discussed in the media. Congo-Brazzaville covers 142,000 square miles and has a population of about six million people.

Despite its natural wealth, and income generated by exports of wood and oil, the people are very poor, not only financially, but morally, too. Congo-Brazzaville has a turbulent history, which has left its mark on the population.

It went through a terrible war at the end of the 1970s, which saw the current President Denis Nguesso, a military man, rise to power. In 1997, forces loyal to Nguesso fought in another civil war against supporters of Pascal Lissouba, who had been elected President of the Republic in 1992. As a result of that war, Lissouba had to go into exile. All of this had a deep effect on the people. Thousands were killed and displaced. Nguesso has been in power since then, and people live their daily lives, just trying to survive and find some peace.   

What is the current state of the Church? 

Faithful visit the spot where Cardinal Biayenda was murdered in 1977.

The Church acts with a certain amount of freedom, but that has not always been the case. The country was a French colony and gained independence in 1960. After that, in 1970, there was a period of socialism, with terrible consequences for the Church. One day, with no prior warning, the socialist government nationalized all Catholic schools and imposed restrictions on religious activities, as well as on Church participation in public affairs. Until 1991, the national flag was red, with the hammer and sickle as the national symbols. The Church has regained some of that lost ground, but there is still very much to do. In other countries, like  Cameroon, for instance, about 50 percent of the schools are Church-run, while in the Congo, only about 10 percent of them are. Catholics make up around 47 percent of the population, and Protestants around 48 percent. And an estimated 1.5 percent is Muslim. There is also a small group that follows traditional African religions.  

One of the victims of the regime at that time was Cardinal Emile Bianyenda. Is he still remembered by the faithful?  

He is greatly beloved because he was a man who strived for peace. Even the non-Catholics admire and respect him. He was murdered in 1977, at the start of the civil war. In the course of one week, three very important national figures were murdered: then-President Marien Ngouabi, Cardinal Biayenda, and former President Alphonse Massamba-Débat, who was executed. The Cardinal urged people to “stay calm and trust in God.” And despite the growing danger, he refused to leave the country, saying: “I would gladly give my life for Christ.” Unfortunately, a few hours later, he was shot. There is currently a cause open for his beatification.  

What are the main challenges for the Church in Congo-Brazzaville? 

There are few vocations for the religious life among women, and the rise of Protestant sects is worrying. Poverty fills people with despair, and the fight for survival is extremely tough. But I believe that the Church in Congo-Brazzaville is full of wonderful people and exceptional priests. They need us to give them hope, and to help their communities prosper.