Police in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) violently repressed a largely Catholic Church-organized protest against President Joseph Kabila Sunday, killing at least six, including a 16-year-old girl.
Kabila’s term ended in December 2016, but he refused to step down after failing to hold elections, arguing that no elections had been held. Kabila and the Catholic-led opposition brokered a deal to hold elections in December 2017 that Kabila also broke. Kabila rescheduled elections for December 2018.
Kabila has been in office for 17 years.
Protesters organized Sunday in the nation’s capital, Kinshasa, demanding he step down immediately. Deutsche Welle notes that police responded with “both live ammunition and tear gas to scatter anti-government protesters who took to the streets following church services.” Firing openly into a crowd of protesters led to the death of at least six – the first of which, Deutsche Welle reports, was a 16-year-old girl leaving a church in Kinshasa. A witness tells the outlet that an armored car opened fire on the outside of the church while she was exiting it:
Church leaders insist the protests were peaceful until police arrived and opened fire.
“We were dispersed by tear gas, stun grenades and live bullets. We have again seen deaths, injuries, priests being arrested, and the theft of citizens’ property,” Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, the archbishop of Kinshasa, told Reuters. “Christians were prevented from praying. Others were prevented from leaving by … police and military who were armed as if they had been on a battlefield.”
“How can you kill men, women, children, youths and old people all chanting religious songs, carrying bibles, rosaries and crucifixes? Are we now living in an open prison?” he asked.
In addition to those killed, the outlet Africa News reports that “over 200 protesters,” including ten priests, are behind bars since Sunday’s protests for participating in the display. Two nuns remain missing, witnesses say. “What was dubbed a peace march turned violent as police fired live bullets and tear gas to disperse the church organized protest,” the outlet notes.
Multiple reports indicate that protests such as the one in Kinshasa broke out in most of the nation’s major cities. Amnesty International, which has demanded justice for those killed and wrongfully imprisoned, estimates that “thousands” have taken to the streets against Kabila.
Pro-democracy Congolese have coalesced around the nation’s Catholic leadership and the affiliated Secular Coordination Committee (CLC), in part because it remains one of the only institutions in the country Kabila does not control. France24 notes that the influence of the church has grown since the death of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi last year.
“The Church today is filling a vacuum, a political vacuum created by Tshisekedi’s death, hence what happened on December 31 and on Sunday,” RFI’s Christophe Boisbouvier tells the outlet. Yet the Church played a role in brokering the two presidential election deals that Kabila has since disregarded, granting it a certain responsibility to enforce those deals.
Unlike in Venezuela, where the Vatican mediated peace talks that ultimately strengthened dictator Nicolás Maduro, or China, where the Vatican has approved the removal of legitimate clergymen to the benefit of pro-communist replacements, Congolese Catholic leaders are taking an organizing role in protests against Kabila. Protest organizers, France24 notes, are demanding Kabila vow not to stand in any forthcoming presidential elections and free the nation’s political prisoners.
Following the coming and going of the December 2017 election deadline, Archbishop Monsengwo issued a statement saying, “It is time for truth to win out over systemic lying, for the mediocre to clear out and for peace and justice to reign in DR Congo.”
Pope Francis weighed in on the situation Wednesday, describing the killing and arresting of pro-democracy protesters as “troubling.”
“I renew my call for everyone to commit to avoiding all forms of violence,” the pope said, according to the Catholic News Agency. “On her part, the Church wants nothing other than to contribute to the peace and to the common good of society.”
The U.S. State Department has also condemned the Congolese government.
“We condemn in the strongest terms the violence perpetrated by DRC security forces on January 21 against church-led peaceful protests that resulted in at least six confirmed deaths, dozens of injuries, and numerous arbitrary arrests,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Tuesday. “We are appalled that the DRC government, including President Kabila, would employ repressive tactics and disproportionate use of lethal force against civilians – including religious leaders and children – exercising their democratic rights to call for credible and inclusive elections.”