Young acolytes hold the cross of St. Augustin Church, Lemba, Kinshasa.

Marchez Avec Vos Pères

Congolese priests have been teargassed, beaten, and arrested, sometimes in their own churchyards. What happens when spiritual leaders take national leaders to task?

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.

Acolytes Kumu, Maleba, and Booto after Sunday service, St. Benoît Church, Lemba, Kinshasa.
Père Julien Wato at St. Dominique Church, Limete, Kinshasa.

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.”


Père Vincent Tshomba

St. Joseph Church, Matonge, Kinshasa

The Catholic Church is a big partner to the government in social sectors. Most of the hospitals and schools are led by Catholics; many schools are led by a priest or the church. The church is close to the population and knows what they need: the church knows their aspirations, and that becomes what priests want, too. The church knows the anguish of people.

That’s why we started putting pressure on the government. We have taken a stand all over the DRC about the political situation. We are not sure if Kabila will respond to negotiations or protests; our politicians are very calculating, because they are tied to their own interests. We don’t have an ambition to fell the regime—we want to bring understanding to the regime. We want them to understand the hopes of the population. The church is helping people to be aware of their future—to make them take it into their own hands.


Abbé Arthur Ponde addresses his priests after a service at St. Augustin Church, Lemba, Kinshasa.

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.


A priest addresses his acolytes after a service at St. Benoît Church, Lemba, Kinshasa.

Père Michel Makai

St. Alphonse Church, Matete, Kinshasa

I am on a mission to Kinshasa from Mozambique. The church has been in Mozambique for five centuries, but the communist system of politics [in that country] affected it. People there just go to church on Sunday, but here in the DRC people attend services most days.

Life has become very difficult in the DRC. People look to us for help—material help and spiritual help. The church is also there to wake up people’s minds and consciences. The church is apart from politics—the church is there to educate.

The Comité Laïc de Coordination is organizing some actions and activities—activities that will allow our voices to be heard. In terms of what the church has done, the people have more confidence in the church than the government.


Abbé Pierre Fourier Mousakaya

St. Augustin Church, Lemba, Kinshasa

The church doesn’t just take care of spiritual aspects—it also takes care of the social and political aspects in the development of people. The relationship between the church and the government doesn’t work the way it should, because the church is telling the truth and its political mission is to tell the truth—to show that this is good, and this is bad. It’s denouncing the bad behavior of politicians.


Choir members during Sunday service at St. Augustin Church, Lemba, Kinshasa.
Agnès and Marie Kavira outside the Anuarite de Goma Church, North Kivu Province.
Feza Mikombe, a member of the congregation at St. François de la Salle Church, Kintambo, Kinshasa.

Père Jean Nkongolo

St. Dominique Church, Limete, Kinshasa

Essentially, our wish is for an election in this country. We must have an alternative.

We want to see change. We know essentially that an election can bring peace to the country—that election is one of the main parts of democracy.

We know that priests are not politicians. The priest’s role is to preach and to do as Christ did. His role is to announce the news of God and denounce what spoils society. But people are finding that they can trust priests. It’s that credibility that is pushing people to come to us.

If people do not trust politicians, it is because they are disappointed—what they are waiting for is not being done. When people see politicians speak, they may listen, but they cannot trust them: Our politicians are speaking about democracy, but we cannot see that in anything they do. They make promises, but people don’t have salaries, jobs, or food. They promise that the children will learn, but education here is a problem. They say that there will be houses and roads, but if you search, you will see that nothing has been done.

When you see the difference between saying and doing, it is in that moment that people will start asking questions and lose their trust.


The cross of the Anuarite de Goma Church being carried into the second service of the day by a junior acolyte.
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.”

A choir at the Sunday service at the Anuarite de Goma church, North Kivu Province.
A young acolyte at St. Dominique Church, Limete, Kinshasa.
Père Octave at St. Joseph Church, Matonge, Kinshasa.
Interviews translated from French by Ephraim Buyikana Faith. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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