Peacebuilders (who represent a large and diverse group) rely on in-person meetings and trust-building to address conflict, and in many places the COVID-19 crisis is blocking their work. Grassroots individuals and groups play roles in building foundations of community support upon which broader peace talks and reconciliation can be built. A webinar on July 8, 2020, hosted by Boston College explored the specific impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the work of Catholic leaders and communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The common theme was that even as conflict continues, restrictions linked to the COVID-19 emergency are reducing capacities to operate, but with creative adaptations efforts continue and some take new forms. Interestingly, some technological platforms earlier seen as too impersonal to work well in fact are showing considerable promise.
Lisa Sowle Cahill, professsor of theology at Boston College, moderated the webinar, with four panelists: Rev. Rigobert Minani, S.J., head of research for peace, human rights, democracy and good governance at the Centre d'Étude Pour l'Action Sociale (DRC) and director of Jesuit social ministry in the DRC and Angola; Léocadie Lushombo, I.T., adjunct instructor in the Boston College theology department; John Katunga, peacebuilding and justice Africa advisor at Catholic Relief Services (CRS); and Mauro Garofalo, director of international relations at the Community of Sant’Egidio.
Large areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are embroiled in violent conflict. At over two million square kilometers, approximately two-thirds the size of Western Europe, the DRC’s total size poses logistical challenges for both the government and peacebuilders. While conflict has been a part of recent Congolese history, so have efforts to promote peace and justice by Congolese communities and civil society organizations. Churches have played active roles, both in working for peace and in responding to COVID-19.
The Catholic Church is a major social and political force, counting some 50% of the Congolese people. Recently elevated Cardinal Fridolin Ambongu Besengu, archbishop of Kinshasa, was recently appointed head of the DRC’s National COVID-19 Fund. The Catholic Bishops Conference (Conférence Épiscopale du Congo), the official body charged with oversight and decision-making power for the Catholic Church in the Congo, is a major player. One participant described the strength and capacity of the Church as a standout in Sub-Saharan Africa, the DRC’s strongest institution after the government. During the 2019 presidential election, for example, the Congolese Bishop’s Conference employed over 40,000 election monitors across the country to observe voting procedures and conduct a backup vote count.
Catholic peacebuilding activities take various forms. The bishops’ conference has supported peace and justice education and mediation efforts between opposition and government groups. Congolese Catholics have been a key part of grassroots peacebuilding alliances. Pope Francis has personally supported peacebuilding efforts in the DRC, hosting President Tshisekedi in January 2020 to explore ways the Vatican and the DRC could collaborate to preserve human dignity, prevent conflict, and embrace peaceful coexistence. Cardinal Fridolin Ambongu has advocated actively for peace, warning against the threats posed by mistrust and rivalry to Congo’s society and government.
So far, most recorded COVID-19 cases in the DRC have been concentrated in Kinshasa, among its population of 12 million. As of July 21, 2020, 8,534 cases and 196 deaths had been recorded. However, as COVID-19 spreads in eastern and northern Congo, the government and peacebuilders will face the double challenge of confronting COVID-19 and Ebola. The country’s eleventh and newest outbreak of Ebola was announced on June 1, 2020, with as many as 60 cases so far. There’s a small glimmer of light: Caritas Congo, the national Catholic relief and social service organization, for example, points to DRC’s experience with Ebola as preparation for what is to come. Caritas Congo has skills and experience needed to produce public health messages through television, radio, SMS, or by megaphone depending upon community needs. Many cities in eastern Congo are likewise equipped with handwashing stations and prevention campaigns from Ebola that are well suited for tackling COVID-19.
Responding to COVID-19 and Catholic peacebuilding have significant links. In the Diocese of Kole in Sankuru province in central Congo, violent conflict and malnutrition have been persistent challenges. In 2015, Emery Kibal Mansong'loo was installed as bishop, after the diocese had been 10 years without one. He committed himself to uniting the community and overcoming differences, arguing that the roots of the community’s conflict were based on limited access to opportunities in the presence of rich natural resources. Lack of opportunity fueled competition among different groups over power and control of resources. In partnership with Catholic Relief Services, the bishop launched a series of sustainable dialogues, known as the “Forum for Peace,” bringing together a wide range of faith leaders, traditional leaders, and local administrators. The meetings later brought in high-level political leaders of the area. However, just as a comprehensive accord between all parties was to be signed, the COVID-19 pandemic began, preventing in-person meetings. The dialogue began to fall apart. Bishop Mansong’loo pursued the effort via WhatsApp, and an accord will hopefully be reached soon, in a virtual meeting, followed by a virtual signing. Webinar participants saw this as emblematic of the types of peacebuilding work that are happening, despite the many obstacles.
Catholic peacebuilding in the DRC thus continues, adapting to the public health requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic. The experience could offer broader lessons. An example of where creativity is much needed is in South Sudan. A recent podcast from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University explored difficult challenges as the pandemic is affecting the peace process. There, religious actors are significant in working for peace, including the Community of Sant’Egidio and the South Sudan Council of Churches. Webinars are an imperfect instrument but under extraordinary circumstances they offer a way to exchange relevant experience and hopefully open the way for new ideas.