News Analysis

DRC’s president tries to win the Church over

Pope Francis and Félix Tshisekedi (Getty)

When the Independent National Election Commission declared Félix Tshisekedi the winner of the presidential election in January 2019, the Catholic Church was swift to contest the outcome.

The then Archbishop Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa declared that he believed the true winner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo election was Tshisekedi’s rival, Martin Fayulu. “But there is a president who is there [Tshisekedi],” he said on Radio France Internationale. “We have to deal with him.”

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge over the past year. When the archbishop was given the red hat in October 2019, President Tshisekedi attended the ceremony in Rome, thus succeeding in reducing tensions with the Church.

The president’s father, veteran Congolese politician Étienne Tshisekedi, was a Catholic whose brother, Gérard Mulumba Kalemba, served as bishop of the Diocese of Mweka in Kasaï Province. We can therefore assume that the president was raised a Catholic. However, he began his presidency with “a day of thanksgiving” organised by pastors of the country’s Églises de reveil (revival churches).

That day the president – dubbed the “Supreme pastor of the DRC” by the magazine Jeune Afrique – asked forgiveness from God for “the blood of the innocent shed intentionally or by mistake”, for the “abuse of power against the weak”, for mismanagement of natural resources and “the cult of personality rooted in all strata of our society”. He concluded by solemnly dedicating the nation to God with these words: “Be the King of Congo and take the place that is due to you.”

The president has helped to repair relations with the Church further with his decision to make free basic primary education available throughout the country. But Cardinal Ambongo has stressed that a genuinely free basic education system will also require investment in infrastructure, a fair salary for teachers and reliable payments to school managers. (The National Episcopal Conference of the Congo estimates that around one in 10 teachers is not being paid for their work.)

The president returned to Rome last month for a meeting with Pope Francis. During the audience, the president and the Pope ratified the “Framework Agreement between the Holy See and the Democratic Republic of the Congo on matters of common interest”, signed in 2016, thus strengthening relations between the DRC and the Holy See.

According to Vatican News, the framework agreement establishes the freedom of the Church in its apostolic activity. Various areas are also regulated by the agreement, including Catholic educational establishments; teaching religion in schools; the charitable activity of the Church; pastoral care in the armed forces and in penitentiary and hospital institutions; as well as entry visas and residence permits for religious personnel.

President Tshisekedi took the opportunity to invite the Pope to the DRC, which is home to around 35 million Catholics out of a population of 81 million. A papal visit would bring great comfort to a country that has endured immense suffering.