DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
“Despite the dark night we are living through, we have not lost hope”
The refugee crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is even worse, numerically than those in Syria, Yemen or Iraq. “Our sufferings serve the material interests of other nations. There is a deliberate intellectual silence on the part of the great powers.”
At the beginning of last month, the United Nations World Food Program sounded the alarm over the humanitarian catastrophe that is brewing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country has long suffered chronic violence, but this has intensified in various regions during the past year. In particular, the Kasayi region in the south of the country has been among the worst affected by the violence resulting from clashes between the armed militias of Kamwuina Nsapu and the Congolese army.
Father Apollinaire Cibaka Cikongo is a professor at the major seminary in Malole, which was ransacked, looted and partially burnt by the rebel militias in February 2017. Speaking to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which is helping for the reconstruction of the seminary, this Congolese priest describes how, despite the suffering the people are going through, the Christmas message is nonetheless one of hope. The interview was conducted by Maria Lozano.
How is the situation in the country?
The situation in Congo is deeply worrying. The conditions regarding food supplies and healthcare are alarming, and access to such basic services as schooling, drinking water and electricity is still worse. According to a study carried out by the bishops’ assembly of the Kasayi region, around 80% of the children there are suffering chronic malnutrition. We are also suffering because of the lack of peace in the country; there is no security, and people’s fundamental civil and political rights are simply being trampled underfoot.
What are the causes of this long-running crisis that has affected the country?
On the one hand, there is climate change, with the rainy season now seemingly reduced from 9 to 6 months – which results in a drought every year and not every other year, as before. On the other hand, it is the crisis in the government of the country and the various resulting outbreaks of violence with their dire impact on the economy. President Kabila has been in power now for almost 17 years and does not want to hold elections. In practice, his legal mandate ended a year ago, on 19 December 2016. This factor has further exacerbated the long-running political crisis in which the country has been embroiled ever since it gained independence in 1960. And to this, we have to add economic interests of Western powers and their regional representatives which have for decades been playing a pernicious role in the conflict.
At present Congo is the country with the most refugees in the world – more even than in Syria or Yemen. Do you get the impression that the world has forgotten your country?
The world has not forgotten Congo. The world knows well what is going on here, but since our sufferings are serving the material interests of other nations, there is a deliberate intellectual and media silence on the part of the major powers. There are people who are breaking this silence, like Pope Francis, who regularly speaks about and prays for Congo. But in this world dominated by the mass media, his voice is not enough to wake up a world faced with a conspiracy of silence that is very profitable economically. There are many Church associations trying to help and also talking about the Congo, but their sphere of influence is relatively limited. At the present time, our world is in the hands of the West, and it is not easy to undo all the legacy of disdain and indifference that many people feel towards us. They see us as the continent of suffering, and our crises do not move them as those of other nations do.
At the beginning of this year, on 18 February, the seminary of Christ the King, where you are a professor, was attacked and burned down by the rebels. The 77 seminarians were forced to flee with nothing but the clothes on their backs and were taken in by local families, where they stayed for three weeks until they could be evacuated. How is the situation there today? Have they been able to return?
Those were some pretty hard times, given that we experienced them first hand. We have witnessed the return of “demons” that we thought was dead. I am speaking of superstitious practices that were truly demonic, on the part of the militias, such as fetishist rituals with actual human heads, and also cannibalism. Faced with this new reality, we have to rethink our approach to evangelization. And yet at the same time, though it might sound contradictory, there have been moments of real personal growth, because it has helped me to experience just what the suffering of my brothers and sisters can lead to, and so to feel very close to them. I also have to say that the situation has enabled us to feel the very close support of the whole Church and of the various Catholic associations, both in the Congo and in the West. Thanks to the generosity of so many Catholics, we were able to resume our courses on 16 June, after being closed for four months. Thanks to the support we have received from ACN, from the Archdiocese of Cologne, from Missio in Aachen, Germany, from the Seminario Urbaniano in Rome and from many private individuals, we have begun work on repairing the seminary. We now have half the funding we need and we are hoping to receive more support soon so that we can offer our seminarians the most minimal conditions for a solid preparation for the priesthood.
How did the seminarians celebrate Christmas this year?
The seminarians here come from eight different dioceses, all in the region of Kasayi. We celebrated Christmas Eve together with them, and then afterwards, on Christmas Day they should, in theory, have returned to their homes, because they had vacations from 25 December to 7 January. But given the lack of transport and the insecurity in the region, many were unable to do so, so they stayed with host families in the city of Kananga, with each of them experiencing Christmas according to the situation of the family they were with. It was a very special kind of Christmas because Kananga was a martyred city that was at the epicentre of the Kamina-Nsapu war, with all its barbarities and thousands of deaths.
What does the Christmas message mean to you in such a difficult situation as you are living through at present in the Congo?
For a Congolese such as myself, Christmas is still the feast of hope. Despite the deep night we have been going through for decades, with all its darkness, God is not like a distant and absent pharaoh. God is a child in my own arms, a child suffering like ourselves, the first victim of the evil which human avarice has inflicted on so many innocent people. We are suffering, but we are able to endure because God suffers in us and nobody can overcome Him.
In many of our countries, Christmas is celebrated with gifts, family meals and Christmas music… How is it celebrated in Congo?
The Democratic Republic of Congo is an impoverished country and we do not have the money to celebrate Christmas as they do elsewhere. Besides, we are still living through a silent war, the most murderous war since the Second World War. But instead of bombing campaigns, we have to face the bombs and bullets of the army and the police, of the rebel militias and foreign troops. Instead of Christmas presents and family gatherings, many people had to flee their homes simply in order to survive.
But we prayed, begging the Child Jesus for the conversion of those responsible, both within and outside the country, for these misfortunes. This is the only and best gift that we can ask of God. And I believe that, despite our suffering, we are still able to contemplate the most important thing about Christmas, namely the saving presence of God in our lives and the responsibility that falls to each of us to help him in this task.
Aid to the Church in Need has given over 3.3 million Euros in 2016 for projects in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the past year, the foundation has supported 41 seminaries in the country, thereby helping a total of 1229 seminarians. At the present time, ACN is again helping for the reconstruction of the major seminary in Malole.