Democratic Republic of the Congo: authorities fail to stem Islamist terror

BISHOP PALUKU SIKULI MELCHISÉDECH heads the Diocese of Butembo-Beni in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He has denounced the failure of his government to tackle the scourge of terrorists expelling indigenous populations from their homes. At the same time, criminals are trafficking in the country’s mineral resources, completely undisturbed. The bishop spoke with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

Since the beginning of April, a wave of demonstrations, some of them violent, have shaken your country, calling for an end to the insecurity. What is your position on these demonstrations?
You cannot ask people who are being slaughtered like animals to simply shut up and do nothing. They have every right to demand security, every right to demand freedom. We simply urge that this be done with respect for the law, peacefully and without violence.

Violence in the DIocese of Butembo-Beni
Violence in the DIocese of Butembo-Beni

What drives the demonstrations exactly?
The completely ineffectual nature of the UN peacekeeping mission; more broadly the ongoing conflicts, which have never been sorted out and which are continuing in the east of the country. When I became bishop, 20 years ago, people were already talking about the ‘Balkanization’ of the region. I can only say that the expression still applies today! The Congolese bishops’ conference calculates that more than 6,000 people have been killed in Beni since 2013; more than 2,000 died in Bunia in the 2020 alone. There are also an estimated at least 3 million internal refugees and around 7,500 people who have been kidnapped. There is a grand scheme to Islamize or expel the local populations.

Why do you speak of Islamization? The main organization involved in the terror campaigns, the so-called Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), does not claim to be an Islamist organization. All those who have been kidnapped by these terrorist groups and who have escaped alive report the same thing. They were given the choice between death and conversion to Islam. They were given Muslim names to cement their new identity. Besides, even those who live in the diocese and haven’t gone through this traumatic experience can tell you that mosques are springing up everywhere.

Who is funding them?
In his time, Mouammar Kadhafi gave very generously towards the building of these mosques. Now there are other sources of funding that are paying for the construction of these buildings. As for the funding of the armed terrorist groups, they are engaged in some very lucrative activities. It is plain to see that Islamization is not their sole motivation! This region abounds with natural resources and they are being exploited completely illegally. How else can you explain those coltan refineries that are operating in Rwanda, when the country has none of this resource? Instead, this rare mineral is extracted here in our region and exported quite illegally across the border. I see no sign of the Congolese government being concerned.

Is there a silent complicity on the part of your government?
Either it is weakness, or it is complicity.

Are you not taking a risk in denouncing the government?
The Congolese Catholic Church is not concerned in this respect. She has done so much for the construction of the country and she manages so many schools and hospitals! Congo would not be the Congo without the Church. So, we are fortunate in being able to speak out quite freely.

—Thomas Oswald