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Church in the Congo: The delicate balance of speaking truth to power

A statement by Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) accusing political groups of fuelling ethnic tensions in the country has generated controversy in the region. Sarah-Leah Pimentel examines the Church’s duty in speaking out against any form of oppression, but points out the dangers that can cloud a sound discernment in speaking truth to power.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a place of untold hardships. Violence, countless rebel groups, belligerent political groups, a tenuous peace – often forged with bloodshed. Human rights abuses abound and communities live in fear.

Communities and ethnic groups become pawns serving the political interests of one or another group. Rebel incursions and political alliances between warring groups often disrupt these already fragile communities. The result is that for many communities, especially in the large rural expanses, people are constantly on the move, continually displaced as they flee from the fighting. Those who are unable to leave are captured, raped, tortured and killed.

In this world, there is no stability. There are no certainties. There is only a perpetual homelessness; a constant sense of unbelonging. The only way to survive is to trust no one, much less the promises of the many political factions vying for power.

The Church brings together fractured communities

Despite the hardships of this environment, the Catholic Church (and Christianity, in general) in the DRC continues to grow. About half of the country’s 83.3 million people are Catholic. Their faith provides them with the courage, hope and perseverance to continue. The Church and Christ become a rock of future promise and a refuge from the uncertain present.

It is not difficult then, to understand why the Catholic Church is a particularly influential voice in the DRC. The Church has often stepped into the space of mediator and is a critical voice in a fractured country where institutions and a strong civil society movement are lacking.

In particular, recently appointed Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo has a long tradition of engaging the country’s political authorities. He was an outspoken critic of former President Joseph Kabila and called for him to step down, but he was also responsible for brokering a deal with Kabila, in 2016, which allowed him to stay in power for the remainder of his term so that democratic elections could be organised.

The Church […] is a critical voice in a fractured country where institutions and a strong civil society movement are lacking.

During the volatile election a year ago, the Church strongly contested the election results, claiming that the elections had been “rigged” in favour of one of the other contenders, Felix Tshisekedi. The official Catholic Church communique described the results as a “robbery” against opposition candidate Martin Fayulu, who had been pegged to win at the polls.

New Cardinal speaks truth to power

Upon his appointment as Cardinal in October 2019, Fridolin Ambongo promised to help the Holy Father fulfil his mission of governing the Church, but also said that his own pastoral mission includes the role of “reconciler” to bring the people of the DRC together.

In an October interview with America Magazine, Ambongo drew parallels between the challenges of the Amazon region and his native Congo Basin, saying:

Everyone says that the wars that we will have in the Congo will be related to water. Everyone wants our water … There are minerals underground, and so the responsibilities that we have to these goods that God has given us, how to manage them for the good of all, thinking also of the future generations, it is important for us to speak about these things in the Congo, so that everyone understands.

Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo

His message appears to be one that seeks to promote unity among warring factions, restore the balance between humanity and God, and ensure that the earth’s resources are used responsibly for the good of all.

In late December, Cardinal Amabongo visited the restive Beni territory in North Kivu Province, near the border with Uganda. During his visit, the rebel Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) killed about 20 people in a series of massacres. The Cardinal reacted strongly to the killings, accusing the authorities of “balkanization,” that is a “a precise program for the occupation of native lands by groups not from the area”, creating further ethnic frictions and fuelling even more violence.

The Cardinal accused the authorities of “balkanization,” that is a “a precise program for the occupation of native lands by groups not from the area”, creating further ethnic frictions.

His comments drew strong reaction from the media in the DRC and the region. For example, Taarifa, a Rwandan online news website that writes favourably about President Paul Kagame, stated that Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Olivier Nduhungirehe, denied Ambongo’s claims of attempting to balkanise the DRC. The article also attributed the following warmongering sentence to the Cardinal: “In the current context, it is difficult to go to war against Rwanda and Uganda. We must first structure the army; provide it with the necessary means. If it is not done, it would be a bad thing.”

The above statement has been reported in the Ugandan and Rwandan media, but the DRC and Catholic news websites do not show evidence of the inclusion of this final remark. That is, however, neither here nor there.

What is up for debate is whether the Church should make political comments and whether there are limits to the content of such statements.

Have the Cardinal and Church in the DRC overstepped the mark?

Despite his many messages of peace over the years, Cardinal Ambongo has also drawn a great deal of criticism. Some media houses have accused the Church in the DRC of having a “history of meddling” and deviating from its role as an impartial mediator by appearing to back particular opposition interests.

Some of Cardinal Ambongo’s charism is perhaps reminiscent of the now canonised Oscar Romero, known as the “archbishop of the poor”. Romero spoke out strongly against the oppression of El Salvador’s corrupt ruling elite, particularly the violence it meted out to all opponents and critics of the dictatorship in the 1970s. He became a voice for the poorest and most oppressed communities. He was assassinated for his efforts and is today recognised as a martyr for the faith.

He is quoted as saying:

I will not tire of declaring that if we really want an effective end to violence we must remove the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest flows naturally.

St. Oscar Romero

Yet for him, the battle against evil can only be waged with love: “Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world.”

If Cardinal Ambongo’s motivation is love of Christ for the poorest and most forgotten members of the DRC, then he has a moral and pastoral duty to speak out against any abuse he sees that violates the rights of the people he has been called to serve.

According to Catholic social teaching, it is the duty of all believers – consecrated or lay – to speak out and act against injustice, and to defend the most marginalised in our societies.

It is the duty of all believers to speak out and act against injustice.

Yet the role of moral authority is one that can easily become corrupted by pride, anger, disillusion and political influence. It’s not something that happens overnight, but it is rather a slow erosion of the moral compass. It is hard to see a massacred community and not speak in anger or hatred. Resistance to the message of good can also harden the heart and deaden the will to continue fighting for justice. Sometimes it becomes easier to give in to the pressures of a particular group, or to give up altogether.

For anyone, especially a Church leader, who takes on the role of being a voice for the voiceless, a voice against the powerful, and a voice of love in a world of war, discernment and deep prayer must be their constant companion. It takes a truly holy person to speak out passionately against injustice without losing sight of their mission to remain at the humble service of God’s people.

We pray that the people of the DRC can overcome their current challenges and find their way to peace. We pray for the Church and her leaders in the DRC who accompany the People of God pastorally and in their daily battle for justice.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.