KINSHASA, Congo (CNS) — Congo’s bishops condemned the “excessive and disproportionate use of force” by security forces that dispersed protesters demanding President Joseph Kabila hold fresh elections in line with a church-brokered accord.
In a Jan. 22 report, the bishops’ conference said “peaceful marches” had been “violently repressed and smothered with tear gas and bursts of fire” in 95 Catholic parishes, leaving six dead and 127 injured, some by police bullets.
It added that peaceful protests had been prevented after Masses in more than 60 other parishes, while 210 Catholics had been detained; most were freed after a few hours.
“Once again, the church deplores the excessive and disproportionate use of force against demonstrators with nothing in their hands but Bibles, rosaries and palms,” the bishops said.
On Jan. 24, Pope Francis spoke of Congo at the end of his general audience in St. Peter’s Square.
“Unfortunately, worrying news continues to arrive from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Therefore, I renew my appeal so that everyone may work hard to avoid every form of violence,” he said. “For its part, the church wants nothing more than to contribute to peace and the common good of society.”
In a “technical note” Jan. 22, the Vatican Embassy in Kinshasa said security forces had surrounded parishes, used tear gas and “shots with real bullets” in Kisangani, Goma, Bukavu, Lubumbashi and Mbuji-Mayi. It added that two Congolese police had been killed by stray bullets in Kinshasa, and said “at least one priest” had been wounded and “at least three others” arrested in the capital.
A spokesman for the U.N. Stabilization Mission confirmed the organization had recorded six deaths and dozens of injuries in Kinshasa when demonstrations were staged after Masses Jan. 21. The church’s lay coordinating committee organized the demonstrations.
Agence France-Presse reported a 24-year-old female religious novice had been killed when police fired on St. Francis de Sales Church in the capital’s Kintambo suburb. It added that similar violence had erupted outside Notre Dame Cathedral and in many of the city’s 160 Catholic parishes, as protesters, accompanied by clergy, waved crucifixes and rosaries.
At a Jan. 22 news conference, parties in the Congo’s governing coalition criticized the church for organizing a “democratic aberration” and said most Catholics had not supported its “useless and vain initiative.”
The Catholic Church makes up half the 67.5 million inhabitants of Congo and has pressed Kabila to step down since his second and final term expired more than a year ago.
A church-brokered accord in December 2016 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 till Dec. 23, 2018.
Earlier in January, the Congolese bishops’ conference condemned “violent and bloody repression” of similar protests Dec. 31, in which eight people were killed. The bishops also demanded action against those who “deliberately profaned churches and holy places.”
Speaking Jan. 21 during his visit Lima, Peru, Pope Francis urged Congolese leaders to “do everything possible to prevent further violence and seek solutions to the common good.” He led a minute’s silence for victims.
On Jan. 22, the Association of Bishops’ Conferences of Central Africa pledged solidarity with Catholic efforts “to achieve a state of law.” Muslim and Protestant leaders had backed the Catholic demonstrations in weekend statements and urged officials not to use force.