The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a nation on the brink. Although President Joseph Kabila’s tenure was set to expire after his second term was up at the end of 2016, he has refused to leave office. As he and those close to him enrich themselves through industries such as diamond mining, the people of the DRC are suffering from vicious waves of militia violence and persistent, grinding poverty. Kabila holds the international community at arm’s length, rejecting aid from the United Nations and calls for his government to hold an election; meanwhile, Congolese opposition politicians have been outmaneuvered, jailed, exiled, or brought over to the president’s side.
In light of this corruption, Catholic priests have emerged as unlikely political dissidents. The Catholic Church is one of the most powerful organizations in the DRC, with unmatched nationwide reach. Alarmed at the dire condition of their country’s politics and the everyday challenges facing their congregations, Catholic groups have attempted to broker elections and encourage a peaceful transition of power. After Kabila’s refusal to leave office at the end of 2016, mediators from the church helped make a deal with the government, requiring an election to be held in one year’s time. When that hadn’t happened by the end of 2017, a lay Catholic group called the Comité Laïc de Coordination encouraged Congolese citizens to take to the streets of Kinshasa, the capital—with priests walking by their sides.
Peaceful protesters were brutally dispersed by government-backed security forces, who used live rounds, rubber bullets, and tear gas. At least 18 people have died during the protests, which started last December; security forces have disrupted mass services and even fired on civilians while they protested in churchyards. According to recent polls, the people of the DRC oppose the president and support the priests: 77 percent say they are in favor of the protests. And although almost everyone polled says they plan to vote in the next election—whenever it might be—74 percent say they want Kabila to step down even before that.
Now Congolese priests, some of whom have been beaten and arrested by security forces themselves, are reflecting on whether they should continue to embrace this more political stance, as so many people look to them for guidance and assurance. This April and May, photographer Hugh Kinsella Cunningham documented priests in Kinshasa and asked them how they felt about their new role. “The population here have many challenges in their life, and as pastors, we will not abandon them,” one priest told him. “The biggest challenge is their social situation—and there is corroboration between that and the political situation.”
Abbé Arthur Ponde
St. Augustin Church, Lemba, Kinshasa; director of Caritas Kinshasa
Fundamentally, the church is apart from politics here—the church is there to accompany the population and wake up their conscience. Now the church is telling people who are supposed to do justice to do it well. The role of the church is not to be transformed as a political party.
If the politicians are also Christian, they need to prove that—to demonstrate it through their acts. We must see the social conditions of the population change. We need a peaceful life, without trouble. We want people to live freely in our beautiful country.
Abbé Sylestre Kuta, St. Pierre Church, Commune de Kinshasa.Worshipper Hortance Ponga prays at the Anuarite de Goma Church, North Kivu Province.Frederick Tshimanga, a trainee priest at St. Dominique Church, Limete.
“When you see the difference between saying and doing, it is in that moment that people will start asking questions and lose their trust.”
Interviews translated from French by Ephraim Buyikana Faith. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.