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DR Congo: 'The church has to walk a very fine line'

Cristina Krippahl
January 2, 2018

Violence is not a rare occurrence in DR Congo. What is unusual is for the government to openly act against the the Catholic Church. DW spoke to analyst Ben Shepherd about the role of the church in DR Congo.

Bishops from the Congolese Catholic Church
Image: Reuters/T. Mukoya

At least eight people were killed in recent anti-government demonstrations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). According to media reports, armed security forces entered churches, threw tear gas and arrested several priests and altar boys for supporting demonstrations that the government had previously banned.

In an interview with DW, Chatham House analyst Ben Shepherd explained why beleaguered President Joseph Kabila felt it necessary to "send a message" to the Catholic Church.

DW: Why are these demonstrations in the DRC taking place at this point?

Ben Shepherd: These protests were seemingly organized and led by the Catholic community in the DRC. Reports are that up to 160 congregations were involved. They are responding to the lack of progress in moving towards elections and more fundamentally to the fact that President Kabila is still in power, and also to the seeming breakdown of the accord reached at the end of 2016, which should have put in place the foundations for a transition to a government of national unity as a way out of the current political impasse. But it doesn't appear that the demonstrations were on a scale that might genuinely concern the current authorities.

Still, the authorities reacted very harshly. The leadership of the Catholic Church, which endorsed these protests, would surely have been aware of the potential of such a reaction from the government. Is there a new quality to the church's political activism? 

The church has to walk a very fine line. They were key to the signing of the accord of 2016. The Catholic Church is pretty much the only institution in the DRC with the moral authority to act as a sort of referee and impose some real pressure on the political elite. They've shown with these demonstrations that they are able to get people on the street in a way that the formal political opposition haven’t been able to. But at the same time, the hierarchy of the church is seen by many in the DRC as being part of the political system. They are not seen as a completely neutral player anymore. Inasmuch as Catholicism is sort of a state religion, they're enmeshed and entangled with the Congolese state and slightly compromised by that.

Congolese youths protesting in the streets of Kinshasa in front of a burning tire
The Congolese want President Kabila to step down from powerImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Bompengo

Half of the Congolese population is Catholic. That leaves about 35 million who are not. So how does one explain the power of the Catholic Church in DRC?

That goes back a long way. Under the colonial authorities, the Catholic churches were brought in as providers of education and also of health care. And as the Congolese state is degraded, the Catholic Church has been left as basically the one national organization with the reach and resources to provide anything at all for the population. They have logistics, they have networks of people, and they have committees organized at village level across the country helping with things like agriculture. They are there for the people, particularly the lower level clergy and lay officials. So it is hard to overstate how important the Catholic Church is in the DRC, which is why they are able to play a role in politics.

Has the government now turned openly against the church?

What is particularly notable about these protests for me is that, if it is confirmed that the police and military were deployed directly outside churches, that suggests a government that is very confident of its ability to manage any fallout from taking out the institution so directly. Deploying armed men to churches is a pretty stark thing in symbolical terms. Or the government is so worried that it was prepared to take that risk. Either way, it will put a great deal of pressure on the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to work out how to respond to that provocation in a way that maintains their stance of acting on behalf of the population without setting themselves on a collision course with the government, with the potential political fallout particularly for the senior hierarchy of the church.

A member of the Consolese security forces in action
The government's response to the protests was harshImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Bompengo

What kind of fallout are we talking about?

What we’ll find out, I guess, is how much respect and credibility the church itself has. Will it outrage the Congolese population that the religious authorities have been taken out so forthrightly and disrespectfully in some ways?

Do you see the possibility of a revolt by the Congolese population?

The Congolese people have been promised so many things so many times and nothing has ever happened. They've been failed by their politics more or less consistently since the 1970s. I don’t think there is anybody really that has the kind of credibility that could act as meaningful leadership for a population that is incredibly cynical. Politics and a lot of the civil society are seen by many Congolese as auditioning for jobs. They won't cause trouble in the hopes of being pulled in. In the Congo if you are involved, if you have a position, a job in a political party or, more importantly, in the administration, that gives you access to resources. You have this cynical population who are very poor and would be taking the risk of going out in the streets and of being shot in order to put in power another individual or group of people who are going to behave in the exact same way as any other leader they have ever known. I don’t think they are interested, honestly.  

Ben Shepherd is an analyst at the London-based think tank Chatham House

The interview was conducted by Cristina Krippahl.