Supported by throngs of worshippers and with western ambassadors in attendance, Catholic leaders in Democratic Republic of Congo hammered home a message of anger toward President Joseph Kabila on Friday at a mass to mourn victims of a crackdown.
Police fired a couple of warning shots to disperse worshippers outside Kinshasa cathedral after the highly-charged mass, which was led by prominent government critic Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, an AFP journalist reported.
Police said they fired only teargas, and two people were slightly injured.
Armed officers arrived at the cathedral gates as the congregation was leaving a service to commemorate the six fatalities of a crackdown on New Year’s Eve marches that demanded Kabila leave office.
The mass, conducted in a packed cathedral, saw the congregation applaud and cheer Catholic leaders as they called on Kabila to uphold a 2016 church-brokered deal, which should have led to the president to hold election by the end of last year.
To a wave of emotion, the names of the six dead were repeated three times.
“If we have lost a brother, a sister, we have gained heroes, real ones, because they have mingled their blood with that of all those who have died for a change of power, the guarantee of democracy,” declared deputy bishop Donatien Bafuidinsoni, bringing the congregation to its feet.
Kabila, 46, has been in power since 2001, at the helm of a regime widely criticised for corruption, repression and incompetence.
His constitutional term in office expired in December 2016, but he stayed on – a move that stoked a bloody spiral of violence.
Under an agreement brokered by the church, he was allowed to stay in office provided new elections were held in 2017.
After months of silence, the authorities said organisational problems meant that the vote would be held on December 23 2018 – a postponement that has angered Western nations, but one that they have reluctantly accepted.
The spokesperson of the episcopate, Father Donatien Nshole, on Friday called on Catholics to “peacefully block all attempts to confiscate or seize power by non-democratic or anti-constitutional ways.”
“We are witnessing a campaign of propaganda, of disinformation, of libel even, orchestrated by heads of the institutions of the republic against the Catholic church and its leadership,” Nshole charged.
Friday’s service was prominently attended by envoys from western nations, with the ambassadors of Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, the Netherlands and Sweden, and representatives from the United States, the European Union and the Vatican.
Opposition leaders Felix Tshisekedi and Vital Kamerhe also attended. Campaigners from in the grassroots group Filimbi held up posters in the cathedral demanding the release of one of their leaders, who is being held.
Friday’s events mark the latest step in a confrontation between Kabila and DRC’s highly influential Roman Catholic church.
Roughly half of the country’s 80 million people are Catholics. The church helps to provide education and healthcare to millions of people in the absence of state services and is one of the few institutions to enjoy broad credibility across the nation.
For many people, Monsengwo has coalesced into the figurehead of protests against Kabila.
Born into a royal family in the Sakata tribe in 1939, Monsengwo played a major role in forcing dictator Mobutu Sese Seko into moving the country towards a multi-party democracy.
He also was an outspoken critic of the violence that for decades has swept through parts of DRC, including civil wars that left millions dead.
Monsengwo’s anger has visibly mounted as the December 31 2016 accord failed to meet its goals, and peaceful protests by Catholics on the deal’s anniversary met with violence.
Last week, he accused “our supposedly courageous men in uniform” of “channelling barbarism.”
“It’s time that truth won out over systematic lies, that mediocre figures stand down and that peace and justice reign in DR Congo,” he declared.
Monsengwo was slapped down almost immediately by the government, which said “insulting remarks” about the armed forces were unacceptable called on the church to remain neutral in politics.
The government “cannot accept that such statements come from a minister of God,” the government said, which hammered home “the secular nature of the Congolese state.”