A Catholic cardinal in the Democratic Republic of Congo has strongly condemned security forces’ attacks on protesters amid deadly political tensions in the country.
“We can only denounce, condemn and stigmatize the actions of the supposedly valiant men in uniform, which are, unfortunately, nothing more, nothing less than barbarism,” Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya told journalists in Kinshasa.
“How can we trust leaders incapable of protecting the population, of guaranteeing peace, justice and love of people?” the cardinal asked.
He accused security forces of opening fire on peaceful protesters and desecrating places of worship, Reuters reports.
Some initial reports said eight people died and 120 were arrested during church-organized protests on Dec. 31. Most of the deaths were in the national capital of Kinshasa.
On Tuesday, a police spokesman said five people had died in the violence, including a police officer. He said the police action was justified in the face of militants and gangsters.
Both Catholic and Protestant churches had called for peaceful marches to be held to protest the delay of elections and the failure of President Joseph Kabila to step down from office at the end of his term. Permission for marches was denied in Kinshasa, and police fired live ammunition, rubber bullets, and tear gas into churches to prevent would-be protesters for gathering.
In Kinshasa, St. Michael’s parish was forced to close when tear gas was fired into the sanctuary. Twelve altar boys were arrested at St. Joseph’s parish, the New York Times reported.
About 40 percent of the Congolese population identifies as Catholic, and Catholic institutions play a large role in education, healthcare and other services.
Under President Kabila, who has held office since 2001, Congolese bishops have spoken out against the government’s human rights violations and the president’s plan to remove term limits that barred him from re-election. They helped mediate an agreement between the country’s ruling political coalition and opposition leaders, culminating in a Dec. 31, 2016 agreement.
The agreement allowed Kabila to remain in office beyond his mandate but he must step down after an election to be held this year. However, the country’s electoral commission then said an election could not be organized until December 2018. The president’s opponents fear Kabila aims to remain in power, while the president has blamed delays on a slow voter registration process.
Dozens of people have died in other political protests, and militia violence has increased, prompting fears of a return to civil war.
The eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo are suffering from armed conflict, with millions of people forced from their homes. Priests and religious there face the threat of abduction and other forms of violence.