The Catholic Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo held a memorial Mass Friday for protesters killed last month while demonstrating against the presidency of Joseph Kabila.
Catholic leaders were outspoken during the Jan. 12 Mass, honoring the victims of an anti-Kabila protest held on Dec. 31. During the New Year’s Eve demonstration, six people were killed and more than 120 were arrested.
The country’s Catholic and Protestant leaders had called for peaceful marches to protest the continued presidency of Kabila, according to the Daily Mail.
Activists and observers say that police and military forces used violence to disrupt the protests. Days after the fatal event, Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, archbishop of Kinshasa, accused security forces of opening fire on peaceful protesters, calling their actions “nothing less than barbarism.”
Cardinal Monsengwo, who has become known for public criticism of the Kabila government, celebrated the memorial Mass on Friday.
The Mass at Kinshasa Cathedral last week drew a large crowd of locals, and diplomatic representatives from the United States, Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, the EU, and the Vatican, the Daily Mail reported.
“If we have lost a brother, a sister, we have gained heroes, real ones, because they have mingled their blood with that of all those who have died for a change of power, the guarantee of democracy,” Bishop Donatien Bafuidinsoni said during the Mass on Jan. 12.
After the Mass, police fired warning shots and teargas to disband worshippers outside the cathedral, where a few people sustained injuries.
Kabila has been Congo’s president since 2001, but failed to step down at the end of his constitutionally-limited two terms of power in 2016. Congolese bishops stepped in to help broker terms with the president in which both parties agreed that new presidential elections would be held in December 2017.
However, the country’s electoral commission postponed the original date, saying an election could not be organized until December 2018. Many of the president’s opponents believe that Kabila has no intention of leaving his position of power, despite the calls for his resignation.
Political tensions have risen as Kabila continues to postpone elections. Dozens have died during protests against Kabila, and some fear the return of a civil war within the country.
“We are witnessing a campaign of propaganda, of disinformation, of libel even, orchestrated by heads of the institutions of the republic against the Catholic church and its leadership,” said Fr. Donatien Nshole, a Church spokesman.
He encouraged Catholics to “peacefully block all attempts to confiscate or seize power by non-democratic or anti-constitutional ways.”