Police invaded churches and fired tear gas during Mass in the Democratic Republic of the Congo last week in a crackdown on protesters that left 12 people dead. Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa called the response “nothing short of barbaric”.
The protests, organised by the Kinshasa archdiocesan lay coordination committee, demanded that President Joseph Kabila keep his promise to step down. At least six priests and a seminarian were among 120 detained by police.
One witness at St Michael’s Church in central Kinshasa told AFP that officers broke up a Mass and arrested altar boys, still in their liturgical robes, who had been protesting against the president.
“While we were praying, the soldiers and the police entered the church compound and fired teargas at the church,” he said.
Another added: “People fell, first-aiders are resuscitating old ladies who have fallen.” The priest continued saying Mass.
Mgr Hugues Ndongisila, rector of Kinshasa’s St Alphonse parish, told Radio France Internationale that police had beaten and robbed Catholics when they sought refuge in his church, shooting out its stained-glass windows. He said the bodies of two dead protesters had later been collected by the Red Cross.
The nunciature said 134 churches were surrounded by police, and at least two parishes were not permitted to celebrate Mass. In five parishes, Mass was interrupted by security forces. The Congolese bishops said in a statement that they were “profoundly shocked by such ignoble acts” and would demand a “serious and objective inquiry” into who was responsible.
As well as condemning the violence, they denounced the “attack on freedom of worship, which is guaranteed in every democratic state, as well as the profanation of churches and physical aggression against the faithful and their priests.”
At a press conference Cardinal Monsengwo said: “How can we trust leaders incapable of protecting the population, of guaranteeing peace, justice and love of people? “How can we trust leaders who trample on religious freedom of the people, religious freedom which is the foundation of all freedom?”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged Mr Kabila’s government to show restraint and “respect the rights of Congolese people to free expression”.
The Catholic Church makes up around half the 67.5 million inhabitants of Congo, and the bishops have pressed Mr Kabila to step down since his second and final term expired in December 2016.
A Church-brokered accord allowed the president to stay in office, alongside an opposition head of government, pending elections by the end of 2017. But in November, Congo’s electoral commission said the ballot would be postponed until December this year.
In a November statement, the bishops’ conference said Church observers had recorded 56 deaths and 355 arrests in six months of opposition protests. They urged Mr Kabila to release political detainees and stick to the December 31, 2016, accord.
Before Christmas the bishops instructed clergy to toll church bells each week until fresh elections were held.
Catholics ‘are fleeing Bosnia’
Thousands of Catholics are leaving Bosnia-Herzegovina every year because of state discrimination against them, the country’s cardinal has said.
Cardinal Vinko Puljić, Archbishop of Vrhbosna, told Aid to the Church in Need that the flight was a legacy of the 1992-95 civil war, when “most of the Catholics were expelled from their homes”. Now, he said, it was hard for Catholics to defend their basic rights. Discrimination was particularly found in employment, he said.