Can the Catholic Church Save Congo?

Kabila and Pope Francis
Pope Francis (R) walks with Democratic Republic of Congo's President Joseph Kabila during a private audience in the pontiff's studio, at the Vatican, on September 26. The Catholic Church in Congo has called upon Kabila to honor the constitution and step down at the end of his second term, which concludes in December. ANDREW MEDICHINI/AFP/Getty

When Pope Francis received Congolese president Joseph Kabila at the Vatican on September 26, the meeting did not take place in the reception room where the pontiff usually meets visiting heads of state.

Instead, the pope greeted Kabila in his library before holding a brief 20-minute meeting conducted through interpreters, in which he raised concerns about the killing of scores of protesters in Congo's capital, Kinshasa, who were demonstrating against expected delays to elections originally slated for November.

Francis, unsurprisingly, did not indicate that the breach of protocol was intentional. But according to DRC expert Phil Clark, the choice of venue echoed the Catholic Church's position in opposing Kabila's apparent attempts to delay elections and stay in power beyond his term in Congo, one of Africa's most promising yet fragile countries.

"I don't think the pope does those things without there being some symbolic message," says Clark, a reader in international politics at SOAS University of London. "I interpreted the pope's subtle snub as a message to Kabila that the Catholic Church doesn't see him as the legitimate president of Congo any longer."

According to observers, Congo is on the brink of falling back into conflict. There have been signs of political unrest since January 2015, when scores of protesters were killed in Kinshasa clashes with security forces. The protests were called after a bill was put forward that would allow Kabila to remain in power while a national census was conducted, thereby potentially delaying presidential and parliamentary elections and keeping Kabila in power.

The fears of the protesters who took to the streets of the capital were not misplaced. After months of protests against the possible delays—including a mass demonstration in Kinshasa on September 20, in which around 50 people were killed in clashes with security forces, according to opposition groups, and which the government called an uprising—the Congolese electoral commission announced in October that the proposed vote would likely be delayed by up to two years. Kabila explained that this was in order to stop millions of unregistered voters being "locked out" of the election, but opposition groups have interpreted it as evidence of glissement —a French term meaning "slippage" that has been used by anti-Kabila protesters to describe what they see as attempts to stay in power.

Congo mass
Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya (C), Archbishop of Kinshasa, leads a Catholic mass in Kinshasa on September 21 to mourn the victims of the violent clashes during anti-government protests. The Catholic bishops conference pulled out of Congo's national dialogue in October, damaging the process's credibility. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP/Getty

Before the Kinshasa protests, the Catholic Church was playing an important role in seeking to resolve Congo's crisis. The church had been acting as a mediator in a so-called national dialogue to help construct a peaceful course towards the elections. (The dialogue involved Kabila's government and several minor opposition parties, but not major opposition figures such as former prime minister Étienne Tshisekedi or fellow presidential candidate Moïse Katumbi.)

After the killings, the Church temporarily suspended its role and then, in early October, it completely pulled out. "Only an inclusive dialogue which respects the constitutional order will provide a framework for resolving our crisis," said Archbishop Utembi Tapa, the president of the Congolese bishops' conference, upon announcing the withdrawal. The Church has since, at Kabila's request, opened talks with opposition groups not included in the national dialogue, but the consultations has not yet borne any concrete resolutions.

The church's withdrawal from the national dialogue has damaged the credibility of the entire process, says Ben Shepherd, associate fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House. Around half of the country's 80 million-plus population are Roman Catholic and the church has a vast infrastructure of schools, hospitals and even private businesses across the country. "The Catholic Church is one of the few institutions in Congo with genuine popular trust and links to the population at all levels," says Shepherd.

Congo protesters
Demonstrators gather in front of a burning car during an opposition rally in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, on September 19. Observers are worried that the political crisis in Congo could result in further outbreaks of violence. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP/Getty Images

Following the announced delay to elections, the situation in Congo remains tense and confusing. Opposition political parties—the most prominent of which have coalesced around a shared platform known as Rassemblement ("Rally")—are continuing to call for protests, while Kabila has begun reforming his government to include opposition figures who participated in the national dialogue.

As December 19—the last day of Kabila's second, and final, presidential term—approaches, further demonstrations look likely. Opposition figures believe that, in the interim period between now and the elections, Kabila may try to change the country's constitution and lift or extend presidential term limits. (A government spokesman, Lambert Mende, previously told The Guardian that such allegations were "gross lies.")

Should the church throw its weight behind such protests, it would likely prove a more difficult foe to the president than opposition parties, says Shepherd. "They would have a much more serious ability to call demonstrations, strikes, public action," he says. "If the church were to tell the people that this is illegitimate and should not stand, Kabila would have to take that very seriously indeed."

The church has positioned itself as a defender of the people in Congo, and the people appear to be turning against Kabila: a recent survey of 7,500 Congolese found that three in four respondents thought the president should leave power by the end of 2016, and four in five rejected any potential constitutional change that could keep Kabila in power.

In a country that has been synonymous with conflict for many years—the Second Congo War, which lasted from 1998 to 2003, was considered the world's deadliest conflict since World War II—the church's primary intention is to avoid further strife. As Father Léonard Santedi, a priest in the archdiocese of Kinshasa, put it recently in a letter to The Guardian: "Our deepest hope is that the current unrest won't descend into civil war: our country has seen enough bloodshed."