Democratic Republic of the Congo: bishops warn of threat of Islamism

RARELY BEFORE have the bishops of the Democratic Republic of Congo spoken out so clearly about the situation in the eastern part of their country, which is plagued by the violence of rebel militias. It is a crisis that is affecting the whole country. “We cannot hope for the development of this country as long as the east remains under the control of predators,” said the bishops in an April 8 joint statement, which was obtained by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

The bishops call upon the political leaders of the country to adopt an entirely new direction in their political, military, and humanitarian strategy to effectively address the situation. The statement includes the summary of a fact-finding trip by a joint delegation of the bishops‘ conference and the Association of Ecclesiastical Conferences of Central Africa (ACEAC), which visited the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri last January.

Violence in the Diocese of Butembo-Beni

According to the statement, Church leaders in the Beni-Butembo region (North Kivu province) stressed the religious dimension of the conflict. They see “the Islamization of the region as a sort of deeper strategy for a long-term negative influence on the general political situation of the country.” Prisoners who escaped the Islamist militia ADF (Allied Democratic Forces) also confirmed to the bishops “that they had been compelled to convert to Islam.”

The bishops draw attention to the various goals of the aggressors. They are exploiting “the weaknesses of the regular armed forces in order to achieve their political and religious goals,” which include “the occupation of the land, illegal exploitation of natural resources, gratuitous self-enrichment and the Islamization of the region without regard for religious freedom.“

According to the statement, the number of victims runs into the thousands. For example, in Beni-Butembo (North Kivu) there have been more than 6000 fatalities since 2013, and in Bunia more than 2000 people were killed in 2020 alone. In addition, at least 3 million people have been forced to flee and some 7500 people have been abducted.

The bishops particularly lament the absence of civil authorities. “The people feel abandoned. The promises by the central government to rapidly restore peace are plentiful, but in many cases they have remained without any effects,” the bishops report.

What’s more, the UN peace mission MONUSCO is accused by the local people of inaction and even complicity, the bishops charge. The troops’ presence is arousing growing suspicion and skepticism, as its forces have not succeeded in preventing the massacres, even when these have happened very close to the positions of the UN troops.

Already back in January, following bloody massacres of civilians, the bishop of Butembo-Beni appealed to the international community to listen to the “cry of suffering“ from his country. In a video message sent to ACN, Bishop Melchisédech Sikuli Paluku said: “I hope that help can be given to the poor people here. We feel abandoned in the face of the Way of the Cross that we have had to endure for years.“

For decades, this region in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is rich in natural resources, has been plagued by the violent incursions of the rebel militias belonging to the ADF), which originally invaded from Uganda. In fact, there are numerous other active militias. All this time, the Congolese Armed Forces and MONUSCO have been unable to bring peace to the region.

—Mario Oliver