By Jayme Cloninger
Congo is often depicted as a dark place so tainted by war and corruption that the humanity of those affected by conflict can barely peek through. In particular, these types of descriptions fail to convey the courage of the many Congolese who speak out about injustices. The long war, the dysfunction of the Congolese state, and the unpredictability of everyday life motivate a variety of strategies for coping, and champions of peace have emerged, many of whom find strength in their faith to work for healing and reconciliation in their communities.
The following is an interview with Jacques Bahati of Africa Faith and Justice Network, who is originally from Goma in eastern Congo, and Aaron Hall of the Enough Project. Together, they share stories of faith communities in eastern Congo and the leadership role these groups play in Congolese civil society.
Bahati, why don’t you tell us a bit more about yourself and the role faith communities have played in your personal story, to bringing you to work at Africa Faith and Justice Network.
BAHATI: Growing up in Congo as a child born in a Catholic family, faith has always been center to my life. I even made it to seminary for about 10 years. Indeed that has an impact on what I do today. That’s why I am with the Africa Faith and Justice Network, a Catholic organization that focuses on advocacy.
Almost 96 percent of the Congolese population affiliates with the Christian faith. What has been the main role of the Christian faith in Congo?
BAHATI: The faith has been the only trusted institution to provide local social and economic services to the people, where the state has abandoned those tasks. So the church has taken on more than its share to address some of the crises and the needs of the people.
To better understand how the faith community is so engrained in the local communities, could you explain a little bit more about how the local church has taken on the responsibility of supporting local hospitals and schools all throughout the country? And can you talk about their role and their function in the local communities?
BAHATI: The missionaries, when they arrived in Congo, the Catholic missionaries, or Protestant missionaries, saw the need for education, for healthcare, among other things. And they have been running those schools and investing in healthcare in a country where those infrastructures are nonexistent in many places. They are present in the most remote areas of the country—evidence that the church is implementing social justice, an aspect enshrined in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We’ve also seen how faith communities in Congo have been at the heart of local grassroots efforts, on everything from addressing hunger and poverty to local reconciliation efforts. How are faith communities able to be such an integral part of social reform in Congo?
BAHATI: We have more than one name we can bring forward to answer that question. For example, in the diocese of Bukavu, we can name Archbishop Munzihirwa, who died because he stood up as a prophet in the midst of a challenge, of an attack, against the people. His successor, Bishop Katalico, was exiled into his village, and he continued the mission to stand up and defend the people. So the church has been a symbol, a sacrament, of encouragement and the function [of the word of God]—it’s not only the word of God, but also the witness. It’s very strong and it’s not only the Catholic Church but other churches, other than the missions.
Now we’ll turn to you, Aaron. In your policy and advocacy work on the conflict, how have you been able to collaborate and work with the Catholic and Protestant Churches in eastern Congo?
HALL: First of all, it’s absolutely critical to work with these groups to have any real effect in working on these issues, both in Congo and here in the United States. Working and collaborating with a faith-based community in eastern Congo is critical to understanding and connecting culturally with the Congolese people, and being able to have that credibility both in Congo and the U.S., to move forward advocacy agendas on human rights and peace-building in Congo.
The issues that we continually work to achieve, and those that the faith-based community are trying to achieve in Congo, are often times aligned based on the human rights agenda. We’ve gone to the Hill with faith leaders to do advocacy geared towards members of Congress. We’ve testified in front of Congress alongside faith leaders, met with Obama administration officials. It’s clear that working with these individuals brings so much gravitas to the conversation and so much credibility from the field based on the power and the vastness of their network in Congo.
Aaron, you just touched on this and recently Bishop Djomo, the current chairman of the National Conference of Bishops in Congo, flew to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress on the issue of conflict minerals. He said that the church is everywhere the people are, including the mines. Bahati and Aaron, you both have recently traveled to a few mines in the Kivus. In what ways is the church able to address the conflict in the mining areas?
BAHATI: I returned from Congo in February and we visited the gold mine of Mukera, in the territory of Fizi in South Kivu. The church has been addressing the issue of conflict minerals from the time the war started in Congo, because they believe this war was beyond the rhetoric of armed groups and so on—that it was an economic war. So, we have seen the bishops of Congo, pastors from other Christian denominations, and Muslims join voices, go to the U.N., come to the U.S., go to Europe, and speak to the international community about the plundering of Congolese resources and the need to stop a trade that is bloody.
HALL: Oftentimes, from an external perspective, when trying to get information from these [mining] communities, facts can become muddied. But the church understands the issues that communities face, because they are part of the communities. They understand the conditions of the mines, what’s happening to women, what’s happening to children, and many church leaders see it in their interest to communicate with people who coming looking for that information, with a broader agenda of sharing with the global community in order to enact change. So, the presence and network of church leaders throughout these communities is integral for being able to separate myth from fact and shed light on situations on the ground.
Talk to us a little bit about the role the Catholic Church played in last year’s national presidential elections.
BAHATI: They invested money and resources in personnel and deployed 30,000 election monitors. That is something that has no match, as far as really participating, and the single message is that the people, the people’s voices needed to be heard, and somebody needed to be watching. The dispute arose after the elections, and the church continues to believe that although the voices of people were not heard, next time they will do the same and even more.
HALL: The national presidential elections last year in Congo were marred by irregularities and fraud. In the wake of the elections that saw the presidential majority take power once again there was a tremendous amount of in-fighting among the political opposition parties and civil society groups. There was also a tremendous amount of repression of opposition voice—and oftentimes it was violent oppression. The people of Congo who felt that there had been injustice done in the election process were unable to come together to galvanize a coordinated mass movement across the country to mount any kind of tangible opposition against the process and against the ruling majority.
The only group that was really able to coordinate and mobilize, from the western borders to the eastern borders and everywhere in between, was the Catholic Church. So, more than any political party, more so than any civil society group, the Catholic Church was able to speak for the Congolese people and continues to do so to this day, as we continue to go forward in this electoral process that really isn’t over. Without the Catholic Church, the situation could have been so much worse. They are one of the only real mechanisms at this point through which the Congolese people can get their voice out, in terms of demanding justice and accountability in the democratic process in Congo.
BAHATI: I’d like to add—the Catholic Church and many other denominations have been at the table as a neutral voice, and that is what we need. When we saw the ruling party gun down many people as it tried to cling on power, the church denounced those killings. And so, as a neutral voice, we need more of that kind of voice to bring order and stand up for democracy and give everyone space for expression.
Thank you both for joining us today in sharing your experiences of working with faith communities and the value of their role in eastern Congo. To find out more information about how local faith communities here in the U.S. can support those efforts in eastern Congo, please visit our website at www.raisehopeforcongo.org.To find out more information about Africa Faith and Justice Network and the great work that Bahati is doing with his team visit www.afjn.org.
This interview has been edited for brevity.