Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dec 6, 2016 / 04:47 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- In late September, Pope Francis met with the controversial president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joseph Kabila. But instead of greeting him in the same room where he usually meets other visiting leaders, a “glum looking Francis” waited for President Kabila in his library. Many interpreted the breach of protocol with Kabila as a subtle Vatican snub.
During the brief exchange, translated through interpreters, the Pope raised his concerns over the recent violent protests in the country, due to delayed elections. Political unrest in Congo under Kabila has been increasing since January 2015, after a bill proposed that Kabila could remain in power while a national census was conducted, potentially delaying presidential and parliamentary elections.
Protesters who saw the bill as a power grab by Kabila took to the streets in what sometimes turned into deadly clashes with the country’s security forces. On September 20, a week before Kabila’s meeting with the Pope, around 50 were killed in clashes in the capital city of Kinshasa.
The elections were supposed to take place in November. But in October, the country’s electoral commission announced that the elections could be delayed for up to two years. Kabila claims to have secured the backing of regional leaders for an African Union-mediated deal — including some opposition leaders — that would allow him to remain in power until April 2018.
Critics say he should step aside and allow an interim government to step in until the next elections can be held. Kabila claims the delay is to stop millions of unregistered voters from being locked out of the election, but those in opposition say it is simply an attempt by Kabila to remain in power a year and a half after his second and last term in office ends.
Until recently, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Congo has been a key mediator in peace talks between the two opposing sides. In a country whose recent history includes much turmoil and what has been called the worst conflict since World War II, the Church is one of the only remaining institutions which maintains the people’s trust. The Church has often stepped in to fill the gaps of the government in the conflict-ridden country, and runs a strong network of schools, hospitals and private businesses.
An estimated half of Congo’s 80 million people identify as Roman Catholic. “No one is better positioned today to be the honest broker. Not the discredited AU, nor the West,” said Pascal Kambale, a Congolese human rights lawyer working for the Open Society Foundations, according to a report from Reuters. But after the Kinshasa violence and the announcement in October, the Bishop’s conference officially stepped back from the peace talks.
“Only an inclusive dialogue which respects the constitutional order will provide a framework for resolving our crisis,” said Archbishop Utembi Tapa, the president of the Congolese bishops’ conference, upon announcing the withdrawal. Msgr. Donatien Nshole, a representative of the Church in Congo, told Voice of America that the bishops’ conference believed President Joseph Kabila should not be seeking to extend term limits and would not sign an accord that failed “to engage all political actors” and “respect the constitutional order.”
However, at the request of President Kabila, the bishops have re-engaged in some peace talks between the two camps in a rush to come to an agreement before Dec. 19th, the official date when President Kabila has been asked to step down. Tom Perriello, the United States special envoy to the region who has also called for Kabila to respect term limits, told Congress last week that the bishops’ mediation was the best chance of avoiding additional, wide-scale violence, but warned they were working on “borrowed time.”
Last week, the bishops issued a statement warning that the divide remained despite weeks of attempted dialogue with both sides. “The situation is critical,” the statement said. “(The bishop’s conference)...calls on all sides to show responsibility and good will to prevent our country from slipping into an uncontrollable situation. May the Virgin Mary intervene for our people and our country.”
Father Léonard Santedi of the Archdiocese of Kinshasa wrote in a letter to The Guardian that the Church hopes to avoid further violence a country that has only begun recovering from the Second Congo War, which lasted from 1998 to 2003, and which also faces occasional terrorist attacks from extreme Islamic groups. “Our deepest hope is that the current unrest won’t descend into civil war: our country has seen enough bloodshed.”