As military solutions by East African regional forces have failed to quell fighting among armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, religious leaders are leading grassroots peace efforts.
The DR Congo has seen its eastern region collapse into conflict as the tribal warfare between Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda has spilled across Congo’s eastern border. More than 120 nonstate armed groups are said to be fighting over territory and Congo’s deep wells of natural resources.
According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, nearly 6 million people are displaced within the country due to the violent clashes. Another million have sought asylum in Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda.
The escalating violence and human rights violations have led to the death of thousands, as well as food insecurity, instability and destruction of homes, markets and infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, banks and other government premises.
Since last year, tens of thousands of Christians, led by their priests and pastors, have taken to the streets across the country to protest violence in eastern regions, urging the Congolese government and the international community to prioritize the safety and well-being of residents.
Christianity is the dominant faith in Congo, with about half of the 95 million residents calling themselves Catholic. In January, Pope Francis visited the country, urging the parties to pursue peace with “concrete deeds.”
Church leaders, including Protestant pastors, say their focus is to work at the grassroots level to build a culture of peace and reconciliation.
Every week, said Pastor Albert Nswadi of Goma International Pentecostal Church, religious leaders in Goma meet with community leaders, political leaders, professionals, families and other stakeholders to allow them to speak and share their concerns.
“We allow people to share the reasons why they are fighting before we urge them to forgive and reconcile among themselves,” he said. “We urge those attending our gatherings to tell their sons or relatives to stop fighting each other and embrace peace.”
Antoine Kimbila, general secretary of the Community of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Congo, said the churches in his network have been hosting survivors of the conflict in Kikwit and rallying to provide food, water, clothes, blankets, sanitation, medical assistance and other essential items.
“We believe they can only experience peace when their spiritual and physical needs are met,” Kimbila said.
Kimbila noted that the church is focused on advocating for peace, empowering displaced people to establish new lives and offering mental health support to survivors and their families.
“We are daily preaching messages of peace and offering counseling to survivors because many of them are traumatized and hurting,” he said, explaining that many survivors have witnessed armed groups murdering their family members and neighbors.