People chant slogans against Congolese President Joseph Kabila as armed UN peacekeepers watch protesters in Kinshasa. Politically-motivated attacks took place on Catholic churches in Kinshasa and area in late February, attacks Cadinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya calls deliberate attempts to ruin the path to peace. CNS photo/Thomas Mukoya, Reuters

Violence in Democratic Republic of Congo leaves Toronto Catholics reeling

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  • March 1, 2017

Congolese Catholics in Toronto are in shock as they learn about politically-motivated attacks on Catholic churches and schools in their majority-Catholic homeland.

Members of the African Catholic Community at Holy Name Parish in Toronto’s Greektown neighbourhood offered prayers for the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo during their Feb. 19 Mass and discussed the situation at length after the service.

“Everyone in Congo is crying. We are all crying. You can know that the Congolese are crying,” African Catholic Community organizer Cleophas Leke told The Catholic Register. “For me to see video of people destroying St. Dominic Parish in Kinshasa where I used to go and pray and sing in the choir, where my niece and nephew were baptized and received their first communion.”

Attacks on Catholic institutions began with arson at the Malole Major Seminary in Kananga, 1,000 km east of the capital city, Kinshasa. Then, around 5 a.m. Feb. 19, a gang invaded the sanctuary of St. Dominic’s, the Dominican parish in Kinshasa. They overturned the altar and destroyed the tabernacle, then broke up the benches.

“They left the church upside down, an indescribable chaos that one of our brothers of St. Dominic priory of Kinshasa compared to the scene of the first book of Maccabees,” said a report on the Order of Preachers website.

A similar attack took place at the Oblate Fathers residence in Kinshasa. Pamphlets have been found around Kinshasa that call for the destruction of Catholic schools and churches.

Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya called the attacks a deliberate attempt to “ruin” the Congolese Catholic bishop’s mission of peace and reconciliation.

With the support of Congo’s national bishops’ conference, Pasinya has personally brokered talks between the government of Laurent Kabila and opposition parties. The deal would see Kabila gradually step away from the presidency. Kabila’s second term in office officially ended Dec. 20, but Kabila has been demanding a change in the constitution to allow him to run for a third term.

The Church-brokered negotiations ended in a Dec. 31 agreement which would see Kabila remain in power through 2017, with fresh elections in the fall.

During this transition year the main opposition party would name the prime minister. The balance of power shifted dramatically when opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi died unexpectedly while undergoing medical treatment in Brussels. With the opposition weakened, Kabila’s party no longer sees the need for compromise.

Rumours blamed the attacks on the opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress, whose headquarters are just down the street from St. Dominic’s Church.

In Toronto, Leke isn’t buying those rumours.

“It cannot be the young people from the opposition. It cannot be that,” he said.

Leke believes there would have to have been police co-operation to stage a daylight attack on a church and only Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy could have persuaded the police to turn a blind eye.

“They are trying to play political games with the Church. President Kabila’s side is accusing the Catholic Church of misleading the Congolese,” Leke said.

Kabila may also be courting the support of Congo’s growing Pentecostal and independent Protestant Churches, said Fr. Bruno Kesangana, the Capuchin Franciscan pastor of San Nicola di Bari Parish on Bloor Street in Toronto. Congo’s population is still about 50-per-cent Catholic, but in the large cities the Pentecostal movement has grown rapidly.

“Pentecostal leadership played no part in negotiating the deal for a democratic transition. There are some jealous churches pushing other people to vandalize the Catholic Church, just to show that they don’t agree,” said Kesangana.

With his churches, schools and priests threatened, Pasinya is calling on politicians to start behaving like responsible leaders.

“We are asking each one of them to demonstrate wisdom, restraint and the spirit of democracy to resolve the issue regarding the designation of a prime minister,” Pasinya said in a statement.

For Toronto’s growing Congolese community, it’s difficult to watch these events from half a world away, said Leke.

“Let me tell you, we are all affected,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. We could not believe that could happen in my country.”

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