Faith, for many in eastern Congo, is a source of hope in an environment where optimism is often in short supply. Many Congolese consider faith communities to be among the few trusted institutions in a society (and a government) rife with corruption.
As the situation in eastern Congo has markedly worsened in recent weeks, the church and faith communities have been at the center of efforts to end violence and create space for peace.
Violence has rapidly escalated in eastern Congo since a new rebel movement known as M23 emerged in April. M23 is composed of several hundred Congolese soldiers loyal to the former Rwandan backed rebel movement—the CNDP—who were subsumed into the Congolese army in 2009 as part of an opaque peace agreement between the rebels and the governments of Congo and Rwanda.
These elements loyal to the CNDP and Rwanda see control of land and resources as essential to their survival. This most recent mutiny began when that control was once again threatened by the Congolese government and international pressure for the arrest of former CNDP leader and wanted international war criminal, General Bosco Ntaganda.
As a result, clashes between the Congolese military and M23 have sparked a surge of ethnic violence against civilians and displaced more than 200,000 people in the area.
As the home of horrific sexual violence and the deadliest conflict since World War II, with the death toll from the nearly two decades of conflict reaching more than 6 million, this chaotic atmosphere is nothing new for eastern Congo. But this latest uptick in violence highlights the regional nature of the conflict, with neighboring countries continuing to destabilize Congo for their own economic and security reasons.
In May, the United Nations Group of Experts released a report detailing the mounting evidence against the Rwandan government, and linking Kagame’s military officers to the formation and support of the M23 operation. The report accuses Rwanda of providing M23 with ammunition, weapons, and recruits, including child soldiers.
The international community’s response has thus far been hesitant, but several key regional actors and donor nations are starting to take more robust action.
For example, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, or ICGLR, agreed in principle on a strategy to defuse the crisis in eastern Congo that included the creation of a neutral, international force to monitor the Rwanda and Congo border area. Additionally, the U.S. government recently cut a portion of military financing to Rwanda, sending a strong signal about future bilateral support.
The strongest international statement condemning this new surge of violence has come from the faith communities in eastern Congo, which decried the “aggression of Rwanda” and spoke on behalf of civil society.
As Jacques Bahati of the African Faith and Justice Network explains, faith communities “have been the only trusted institutions to provide local social and economic services to the people, where the state has abandoned those tasks.”
In the press release and statement to the U.N. Security Council, the faith coalition from Congo declared:
This unjust and unjustifiable invasion [by Rwanda] undermines efforts to reconciliation and reconstruction of the Congolese nation. It is accompanied by an unprecedented cross-border crime and a systematic plundering of natural resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The role of faith communities in calling for the full exposure of Rwanda’s involvement in this conflict is essential. As stated by the coalition, the rising conflict is standing in the way of any local efforts for reconciliation, and as long as Rwanda keeps a footprint in eastern Congo, the region will remain destabilized.
So how does the global faith community respond to the situation in eastern Congo?
Faith communities, especially those with missions and support networks in both Congo and Rwanda, are in a unique position to show leadership in supporting affected Congolese communities and their efforts to bring peace and stability in central Africa.
Photo: Bishop Jean Marie Runiga, a spokesman for M23, gives press conference (Enough / Fidel Bafilemba)