After security forces killed at least six people participating in Church-organized protests this weekend, the Archbishop of Kinshasa has likened his country to an “open prison”.
The protesters were calling for Joseph Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to step down. His two-term limit expired in December 2016, but he has refused to resign and has not allowed elections to be held.
“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 Pasinya said Jan. 23 at a church in the capital, Kinshasa.
“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,” he said.
“How can you kill men, women, children, youths and old people all chanting religious songs, carrying bibles, rosaries and crucifixes?” Cardinal Monsengwo asked. “Are we now living in an open prison?”
During Jan. 21 demonstrations against Kabila, six people were shot dead by security forces, and dozens more were wounded. Hundreds have been detained, including at least a dozen priests and nuns, The Guardian reports.
The protests were organized by the Lay Coordination Committee of the DRC, which has the backing of many clerics in the country.
Arrests were also reported in Mbuji-Mayi, Goma, and Lubumbashi.
The US Department of State said Jan. 23 that “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.”
“The use of lethal force against Congolese citizens, and the cutting of internet and SMS service, undermine the democratic process, obstruct implementation of the St. Sylvestre Accord and contravene international human rights norms,” added State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.
The latest demonstrations and arrests follow a similar incident on Dec. 31, 2017. Then, several protestors were killed and more than 120 arrested, most of them in Kinshasa.
The bishops in the DRC have asked that Kabila not seek a third term as president. He has been in power since 2001. With about half the population identifying as Catholic, the Church in the DRC is one of the country's most important institutions.
The Church played a crucial role as mediator in negotiations that led to an agreement reached at the end of 2016 that Kabila would step down following elections to be held in 2017. Those elections were not held, and have now been delayed until December.
The delay in elections has been attributed by the government to difficulties with voter registration.