Democratic Republic of the Congo: ‘We are in a state of utter misery’

THE BISHOP OF BUTEMBO-BENI IN THE EASTERN PART OF THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO (DRC) denounced the human rights violations being carried out in his diocese by marauding militia groups. In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Bishop Paluku Sekuli Melchisédech explained: “The number of incidents is particularly high in the northern part of our diocese. Armed groups are destroying schools and hospitals. Teachers and pupils are being killed. They are even killing the sick as they lie in their hospital beds. Not a day goes by without people being killed.”

According to the bishop, the crisis has led to a rise in psychological disorders. “We need centers where people can go for therapy. Many people are traumatized. Many have watched as their parents were killed. There are many orphans and widows. Villages have been burned to the ground. We are in a state of utter misery.”

For years, the eastern provinces of the DRC have been besieged by militia groups. Important factors in this development are ethnic conflicts, demographic displacement. and access to raw materials. Over the last few years, the situation has been exacerbated by a powerful radical Islamist element.

According to Bishop Melchisédech, more than 6,000 people have been killed in Beni since 2013, and more than 2,000 people in 2020 in Bunia alone. “In addition, there are at least 3 million displaced persons and about 7,500 people have been kidnapped. A large-scale project is underway to Islamize or expel the indigenous populations,” the bishop said.

Public life has come to a standstill out of fear of terrorist attacks and to protest at the collapse of the government. “It is a time of unrest, protest marches, strikes, civil rights movements. Normal life is paralyzed. People are calling for more security.”

 “The state as such does not exist. The reach of the government does not extend into the east, be it out of weakness or complicity.”

The indifference of the state has led the Catholic Church to take on a special role, the bishop emphasized. “We are 1500 miles from the capital. As the government is doing nothing here, we must take care of ourselves. We do not receive any help.” However, the Church has still managed to build schools in the region.

However, an even more crucial part of its work is keeping hope alive for the people. “Our presence gives the people hope that they will be able to overcome their current adversities and that better days will come,” the bishop stressed.

 “The people cry because they have reason to. But they also carry a seed of hope within them. They have a natural resilience that is strengthened by evangelization.”

Christianity was introduced in this region about 120 years ago, the bishop said. “Evangelization is bearing fruit. We have many vocations in our diocese.”

He xplained that the region is actually predominantly Christian. Now, however, it is facing Islamization. For this reason, the bishop believes that the greatest challenge lies in “strengthening the faith of Catholics. Islam is being forced on us. Mosques are being built everywhere, even though no one needs them. They do not look like the traditional ones we are familiar with.”

He calls it Islamization because “anyone who has been kidnapped by these terrorist groups and managed to escape from them alive has told the same story. They were given the choice between death and converting to Islam.”

Displaced people in the eastern DRC

In response to a question about how these groups are being funded, Bishop Melchisédech first mentioned foreign backers. As an example, former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was very generous in his support for the building of mosques. Now, however, other sources of funding are being used for their construction.

“The armed terrorist groups are engaged in some very lucrative activities. It is quite apparent that Islamization is not their only motivation!” the bishop said, referring to the exploitation of mineral resources. “This region has many natural resources that are being exploited illegally. How else would you explain the coltan refineries that are operating in Rwanda, even though this resource does is not found there? This rare mineral is extracted here and illegally carried across the border. This does not appear to overly concern the Congolese government.”

Bishop Melchisédech wonders how the Church should handle this imposed form of Islam. “What kind of relationship should we have with this form of Islam, which is not only a religion, but also a political movement that is linked to terrorism?” the bishop asked.

ACN has been supporting the Catholic Church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for many years. This year, the organization is focusing on the victims of Islamist extremism and the pastoral work of the Church in conflict regions.

—Mario Oliver