The DRC’s Christian leaders have become outspoken defenders of human rights. In 2016, Joseph Kabila’s unilateral decision to extend his elected term as president sparked pro-democracy protests, mainly led by Catholic clergy. Protests segued directly from religious services, as legions of mass-goers surged out into the streets, singing hymns as they followed robed clergy. The most active centers of anti-Kabila militancy were Kinshasa’s parish churches and the cathedral itself.
Besides engaging in street activism, Catholic churches regularly rang their bells to remind the regime that its time was up. That in turn inspired a cacophony of whistles, pan banging, and horn honking by enthusiastic lay supporters. Throughout the crisis, the de facto leader of the democratic opposition nationwide was Kinshasa’s Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, who has now been succeeded as archbishop by the equally determined Fridolin Ambongo Besungu.
Protesters remained undaunted despite the regime’s efforts to suppress them by means of shootings and beatings and the arrest of priests. The church has combated antichurch propaganda campaigns launched by regime followers, who seek to demonize and intimidate the leading prelates. In such a propaganda war, the Catholic Church enjoys vast advantages in its own networks of preaching and information distribution. At the height of the struggle over the past two years, Catholics were joined by evangelical Christians as well as Muslims. It is not that the country lacks a secular sphere but rather that the churches (and mosques) have an overwhelming claim to credibility and popular respect.