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Police fire tear gas and arrest altar boys during Mass in Congo

A woman gestures during a demonstration to call for the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to step down (Getty Images)

Police invaded Catholic churches and fired tear gas during Mass in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday as protests against the rule of President Joseph Kabila intensified.

One witness at St. Michael’s Church in central Kinshasa told AFP that officers broke up the 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” – but the priest continued saying Mass.

The rector of Kinshasa’s St Alphonse Parish, Mgr Hugues Ndongisila, also 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.

Church leaders in Congo have expressed shock at the violence. Security forces have targeted Catholic protesters, leaving at least eight dead and 120 people detained.

The December 31 protest against rule by President Joseph Kabila was organised by the Kinshasa archdiocesan lay coordination committee. At least a dozen priests are among those detained.

“We condemn with utmost vigour this unjustified violence,” the Congolese bishops’ conference said in a statement January 2.

“We similarly denounce this 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.”

The statement said the bishops were “profoundly shocked by such ignoble acts,” and would demand a “serious and objective inquiry” into who was responsible.

A UN spokeswoman said seven deaths had been recorded in Kinshasa, and another at Kananga.

The violence was condemned by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who urged 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 Kabila to step down since his second and final term expired in December 2016.

Later, a church-brokered accord allowed the president to stay in office, alongside an opposition head of government, pending elections by the end of 2017. However, in November, Congo’s Electoral Commission said the ballot would be postponed until December 23, 2018.

In a November statement, the bishops’ conference said church observers had recorded 56 deaths and 355 arrests in half a year of opposition protests. They urged Kabila to release political detainees and stick to the December 31, 2016, accord.

Additional reporting by Catholic News Service