Christians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are seeing improved efforts by the government of the DRC to improve the security situation of their communities.
A representative of DRC revival churches told Zenger that the government believes Christian organizations are important to the vitality of society and social cohesion. As such, the government has recently prioritized efforts to protect Christians and to fight militant groups that threaten the freedom of worship.
As elsewhere in Africa, faith-based organizations provide much of the educational, health and other social opportunities. Yet, it is precisely for those reasons that Christian groups have often been targeted by armed groups. Amongst these, the most notable is the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which has targeted Christian groups in the past. Other groups, while not explicitly targeting Christian groups, have made it difficult for Christians to worship given the security situation.
“The Democratic Republic of Congo is known as a Christian-dominated country, regardless of its constitution recognizing the country as a lay state,” said Remy Paul Eale Bosela Ekakhol, a member of National Human Rights Commission. “The two dominant religious groups are Catholics and Protestants, who have been for a long time considered state partners due to the fact they own many school and medical facilities across the country. Even though Catholics and Protestants are the main religious groups, there has never been conflict between the two groups and the other [religious groups].”
Catholics, Protestants and Muslims are three of the largest faith groups in the DRC. Local and independent churches are also significant. Kimbanguism, founded by a charismatic preacher named Simon Kimbangu in 1921, has six million adherents. Traditional church leaders — known as “ngunza” — are another important group.
“These different religious groups live in perfect harmony and pacific coexistence,” Ekahkol said.
There are signs that the security situation, which has made life difficult for some groups, is improving. A feared commander was recently captured in neighboring Uganda. Indeed, the Congolese government and Uganda have recently brokered an agreement to jointly hunt the ADF together. Recent fighting, in which the army has reportedly gotten the better of encounters with militants, has given renewed confidence to the government.
President Felix Tshisekedi, who faces re-election next month, has even called for a speedy withdrawal of the U.N. mission in the country. Some 17,000 United Nations peacekeepers have been in the country for decades.
At the same time, his government has been making an effort to ensure the integrity of the upcoming election, recruiting a reported 210,000 observers who will be overseeing the vote — including many Christian organizations who will be taking a part as observers. Previous elections in the DRC have also been large affairs and supported by the international community to ensure integrity in Africa’s second largest nation by land area.
There is also growing confidence among notable faith organizations in the government as well. Earlier this year, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Congo spent thousands to provide sanitation facilities for a police camp — albeit far from the country’s troubled eastern region.
The Allied Democratic Forces are often characterized as simply an Islamist terrorist group. Yet, their origins are more obscure. The “allied” refers to the fact when the group formed in the 1990s, it included both Idi Amin loyalists and Rwenzori monarcho-separatist movements. Representatives of these groups have lost influence to Salafi jihadist groups in recent years. Yet, this early ideological flexibility has echoes in the ability of the group to work with Hezbollah and ISIS. It has also allowed it to recruit from across the Swahili phone world, such as Tanzania and beyond to Somalia.
Elsewhere in the country, the status of religious freedom remains strong. Pope Francis visited Kinshasa this past January in a show of support, underscoring the confidence which international faith leaders have in Tshisekedi.
The pope asked Christian militants in the country to“lay down the arms and welcome mercy” during his visit to the country, where roughly half the population is Catholic, also included a sit-down meeting with Tshisekedi to discuss the situation.
Where the election will lead the DRC is yet to be determined. However, growing calls among domestic faith leaders indicate an increasing preference for continuity in governance over change.
“The position of Christians in the DRC is among the best in Africa,” said civil society leader Bishop Eric Kalala, who will also be playing a role in overseeing the upcoming election. “The only way to ensure the future of Christian communities in the DRC is to continuing working with and developing ties with the Tshisekedi government.”