A special service is being held at Kinshasa's St. Joseph Catholic Church. Some of the parishioners weep. Others are deep in thought. The bishop, cloaked in red robes, walks up to the podium at the altar.
“We must never forget the martyrs,” he says. The crowd applauds.
In recent months, at least 45 people have been killed in church-organized pro-democracy rallies, as the Democratic Republic of Congo prepares for long-delayed elections on December 23.
The Catholic Church is a powerful force in the DRC. Nearly half of the country’s 78 million people are members. Many say they are inspired by the Church’s steady demands for good governance.
But ever since the anti-government protests began early in 2017, the security forces have been targeting certain churchgoers, like Gertrude Ekombe.
“We did not go back home to our families. We are living in clandestine since January until today. For our security, we inform the U.N. Mission MONUSCO about our movements and some of their agents go before us whenever we go out,” Ekombe says.
Ekombe says she knew one young girl who was killed in the protests, and another whose jaw was "almost broken."
Another person killed in the protests was a young assistant professor, Rossy Mukendi. His sister, Mirielle Timanga, said the family was always concerned about his anti-government activism.
“Rossy had an early commitment and he was very young when he was interested in politics. As his relatives, we didn’t agree with his militancy. We found it always dangerous because we are in Africa and we deal more with autocrats than democrats,” Timanga says.
The government says it is still investigating the death.
Timanga says she would have wanted her brother to see a better Congo.
'Determination' ahead of elections
The demonstrations began after President Joseph Kabila refused to step down at the end of his second term in December 2016, despite an agreement, with political parties, brokered by the Catholic Church.
Kabila, who took power since 2001, finally announced in August that he would step aside. Kabila said he is supporting former interior minister Emmanuel Shadary in the polls.
The government excluded former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba and former provincial governor Moise Katumbi from running, raising questions about transparency. The final list of 21 candidates, published Wednesday, does include several Kabila critics.
Catholic bishops support a lay committee known as the CLC to coordinate the Church’s activism.
“CLC’s determination remains unchanged. We want the pre-electoral environment to be safe enough before going to the December vote. For now, it is not the case. The context is filled with uncertainties and irregularities and under such conditions a credible and fair election can’t be held. This the main point of our fight,” Felix Kabange, the spokesperson for the CLC, says.
Lambert Mende, the federal minister of communication, says the Catholic Church leadership is overstepping its boundaries.
“So let them remove their status as bishops and become politicians and we will run together and will see who will win. We’re talking of leading a country and it’s not for bishops to lead a country,” Mende says.
Lambert also blames Western governments for interfering in local politics and inciting protests. He said some of the local Catholic bishops are being sponsored by Western governments. It’s a recurring line among government officials in the DRC.
Parishioners like Ekombe say as long as the Church leadership continues to back them, they’ll continue to nonviolently demand greater democracy in the DRC.
“We have dangers over our heads every day, but we must go all the way,” Ekombe says.