United Methodist Bishop Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda (front left) of the Democratic Republic of Congo testifies before a U.S. House Foreign Affairs subcommittee in Washington DC. He asked the U.S. government to help end the Rwanda-supported conflict in Eastern Congo. Seated with Bishop Ntambo are Mark Schneider (center) of the International Crisis Group and Jason Stearns of the Usalama Project Rift Valley Institute. (Photo by Jay Mallin)
Religion as a force for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been overlooked by scholars who have increasingly recognized the importance of local peacebuilding. Ethnographic research conducted in Kamina, DRC shows that religious leaders, including Protestant, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Muslim, Kimbanguist and indigenous, are deeply involved in peacebuilding efforts. They have established conversations with all segments of society — government, military, militia, civil society, and women — in order to develop a united public voice in a divided country where almost everyone practices some form of religion and spirituality.
In September, thirty-two of these religious leaders presented a petition signed by a million peace-seeking Congolese at the United Nations, and eight advocated for their cause on Capitol Hill. Resulting from these conversations, Bishop Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda, United Methodist Bishop from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), testified at the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa, Human Rights and Public Health. He challenged the US to press Rwanda to withdraw its support for “M23,” the rebel group currently attacking the DRC. Bishop Ntambo pled,
“In 1994 800,000 died in Rwanda, and we Congolese cried with the Rwandan people. The Western nations felt so guilty. In 1998 Rwanda invaded Congo and six million died. But no one cared. If for 800,000, why not for six million? Now Rwanda invades Congo again. This time, we ask you to stop this war.”
The “six million” referred to the deaths resulting from “Africa’s World War” that crippled the DRC from 1998-2002.
On July 31, 1998 Rwanda, aided by Uganda and Burundi, invaded. African nations failed to broker peace. Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia dispatched troops to support the Congolese army. The next three years brought failed peace negotiations, fighting over two-thirds of the country, deployment of the United Nation’s largest peacekeeping force, and the displacement and death of millions of Congolese civilians. In 2002, the Lusaka peace agreement between Rwanda and the DRC moved the region toward peace. But treacherous military leaders continued to foment unrest at the border of Rwanda and the DRC.
The current threat developed in mid-April 2012. General Bosco Ntaganda, wanted for war crimes, led “M23” to defect. UN Expert Report S/2012/348, released in June 2012, concluded that Rwanda backed the “M23.” Rwanda says the war is driven by ethnic division; UN reports from 2001-2004 showed that war in this region is fueled by “conflict minerals,” particularly coltan, which is used in cell phones and laptop computers.
Bishop Ntambo compared the efforts of the interfaith Congolese delegation to religious leaders in the U.S. after 9/11,
“You Americans came together as one. In Congo, we have 9/11 every day. We are here as one to ask you to stop the violence. You have it in your control.”
Bishop Ntambo spoke for a delegation of thirty-two Congolese religious and civic leaders determined to globalize their local peacebuilding. On August 31 they presented a petition at the UN signed by a million Congolese, asking the UN to pressure Rwanda to stop fighting. Then the delegation visited government leaders in the United States, Canada, Belgium, Italy, and Spain with the same message. In Canada, their meeting with the Department of International Trade Canada (DFAIT) resulted in DFAIT’s statement on September 14, “Canada Deeply Concerned by Grave Human Rights Violations in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.”
On September 19 the testifiers demonstrated the complementary roles that civil society and religious leaders often play in public discourse. Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, and Jason Stearns, who led a United Nations Expert Panel on Rwanda and Congo, presented detailed evidence of Rwandan support for the M23. But information alone does not create political will or persuade the United States or Canada, allies of Rwanda, to hold it accountable for its actions. Bishop Ntambo’s testimony did what religious leaders do best: it offered stories and metaphors that made real the agony of the Congolese people.
The UN General Assembly convened a sidebar “Congo Summit,” but observers say little was accomplished. The religious leaders’ petition requested expanded rules of engagement for the UN peacekeeping force, arrest of all war criminals named by the UN, and rejection of Rwanda’s application to be a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Some experts believe that Rwanda would respond to a decrease in international aid; others suggest that Rwanda is sensitive potential loss of reputation in the international community. The religious and civic leaders of the DRC hope that the Western world will keep it eyes on the unfolding drama, and by so doing, save the lives of innocent civilians.
Mande Muyombo is the Executive Secretary for Africa, Mission Relationships, General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church and Doctor of Ministry student at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, MO.