A bishop in eastern Congo urged special humanitarian efforts during Lent, after rebel forces stormed a church during a Sunday Mass, leaving at least 30 dead and injured.
Bishop Melchisedec Sikuli Paluku of Butembo-Beni said Catholics "should go beyond compassion by helping those internally displaced, who are now especially numerous in all four corners of our diocese because of the killings being perpetrated."
He said growing insecurity had combined with inadequate facilities for controlling the coronavirus and other diseases to fuel desperate needs.
"It's time to aid so many orphans, widows and widowers -- to assure all those who've lost loved ones that we will denounce these despicable atrocities until they end," said Bishop Sikuli, whose Feb. 17 homily was carried by the diocese's Radio Moto.
At least 18 people died when militants stormed and burned the Ndelya parish church in Ituri province Feb. 14.
In a Feb. 16 statement, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said the atrocity had heightened alarm over a "systematic approach" by armed groups to "sow fear and chaos," adding that international concern was also growing over the failure of Congolese armed forces to maintain control over secured zones in cooperation with an 18,000-strong U.N. stabilization mission, MONUSCO.
Patient Akilimali, editor of Radio Moto, told Catholic News Service that the church attack had provoked a "mass exodus," with many reported missing.
"The rebels seek to send a message by attacking civilians in places identified as key to social and cultural life," Akilimali told CNS Feb. 18.
"Though it's difficult to discern their precise aim in assaulting churches, the long-term goal is to control the region. Catholics everywhere, especially those living close to churches, now fear further moves against the Christian population at a time when there's already very little security."
The Catholic Church, making up two-thirds of Congo's 67.5 million inhabitants, has long been involved in peace efforts across the African country, where around 5 million people have been displaced by fighting, according to 2020 data from the UN.
In January, Bishop Sikuli announced a solidarity campaign in conjunction with the church's Caritas organization, after Allied Democratic Forces fighters attacked a Catholic church at Lisasa, leaving 21 mostly female parishioners dead.
Akilimali said many Catholics had been left with "no option but to flee," adding that Bishop Sikuli had helped arrange shelter for them in at least a hundred locations in his diocese, covering Ituri and Nord Kivu provinces.
"He's also made many interventions with the security forces, government and international community, urging better protection," the Catholic radio editor said. "But most of all, he's appealed to the faithful during constant travels to mobilize help with food, clothing and money."
Msgr. Donatien Nshole Babula, secretary-general of Congolese bishops' conference, told CNS from Kinshasa that church leaders were being kept informed by Bishop Sikuli of the situation in Butembo-Beni Diocese and would be recommending action in an upcoming report.
"The Catholic Church is being targeted owing to its apparent identification with rival communities -- certain people are seeking to politicize communal conflicts in the context of regional poverty and insecurity," Msgr. Nshole told CNS. "But the church is determined to continue its mission, hearing the calls of the people. We are a community of hope, and we have a duty to discern how we can best contribute to changing the situation."