Mobutism (Mobutu) and the Catholic Church
(Historical Dictionary of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, edited by Emizet Francois Kisangani, and Scott F. Bobb, Scarecrow Press, 2009.)
The Catholic Church has long been a political power in Congo, and alumni groups of the mission schools were among the first to condemn discrimination against Congolese and other abuses of colonialism. However, the Church as an institution usually worked with the authorities, both before and after independence, and often played a stabilizing social role. The Church came into open conflict with the state in the 1970s. Seko President Mobutu Sese nationalized Lovanium University in 1971 following student parochial schools into lay institutions. The decrees outlawing all unrest. The Authenticity program also irritated the Church, particularly the decree ordering Congolese to abandon their Christian names for “authentic” African ones and the attempts to convert youth movements, except the Jeunesse du Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (JMPR), the youth wing of the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR), and ordering the establishment of JMPR branches in all schools and seminaries also irked the Church. The Church responded by threatening to close its seminaries.
On 12 January 1972, the journal Afrique Chrétienne questioned the policy of Authenticity and was closed down. The leader of the church, Cardinal Joseph Malula, also objected at that time to the use of hymns with the word Mobutu substituted for God in the lyrics. Malula was forced to leave the country, and his residence was sacked. In March 1972, the Political Bureau of the MPR announced religious services would no longer be part of official state functions. Later in the year, the government banned all religious television and radio broadcasts and prohibited religious church groups from meeting. In February 1973, 31 religious publications were banned. The antireligious moves came at a time when Mobutu, influenced by the People’s Republic of China and North Korea, wished to establish the unquestioned supremacy of party and state. However, the measures were resented by many citizens who remained highly religious and many of the decrees were eventually relaxed.
During the late 1980s, Catholic leaders became increasingly critical of the Congolese government and society. A group of priests wrote a public letter in 1987 decrying the moral degeneration of the society. Malula died on 14 June 1989, at the age of 72 years, in Louvain, after a lengthy illness. The bishop of Mbandaka, Monsignor Etsou Nzab-Bamungwabi Frédéric, was named archbishop of Kinshasa in 1990, then raised to the rank of cardinal, replacing Malula as titular head of the Catholic Church in the country.
Many more letters criticizing the elite and the moral decay of society were issued in the 1990s. On 16 February 1992, priests and their followers organized a march in Kinshasa, called the Christian March or Marche d’Espoir (March of Hope) on a Sunday following Mass, requesting the resumption of the National Conference stalled by Mobutu. The march was violently crushed by security forces, resulting in 46 deaths. In August 1998, when Rwanda invaded Congo in support of the rebel group, Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD), the Catholic Church vehemently condemned the invasion, and most priests in eastern Congo even called on parishioners to boycott goods from Rwanda in protest. During the transitional government, from 2003 to 2006, the Catholic Church was again critical of corruption and moral decay of the government. However, the political role of the Catholic Church has declined since the 2006 elections, as the result of a dispute between Appolinaire Malu Malu, president of the Commission Électorale Indépendante (CEI) and Cardinal Etsou. Etsou criticized Malu Malu of being biased toward President Joseph Kabila at the expense of challenger Jean-Pierre Bemba during presidential elections.