Congo is preparing for a crucial vote to elect a successor for President Joseph Kabila, who has been in power since 2001. A successful election would mean the first peaceful transition of power for a country whose rule by dictators has been broken only by coups and civil wars.
But church leaders have put the stakes higher for Sunday’s vote (Dec. 23), demanding deeper change for Congo’s 81.5 million citizens.
“What is at stake is unity of our country, the integrity of our national territory, justice, peace and the improvement of the people’s living conditions,” said the country’s Catholic bishops, spiritual leaders to half of the population, in a statement last month.
Two years ago the bishops brokered a pact between Kabila and the opposition that allowed Kabila to remain in power until his successor is elected.
The Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. Map courtesy of Creative Commons
Now the bishops, joined by leaders from other churches, are urging their followers to turn out in large numbers to elect leaders who can defend the country, guarantee freedoms and do not steal the country’s resources, among other qualifications.
“We are urging the people to elect those who stand for progress and those (who) would not steal people’s mineral wealth,” said Bishop Josue’ Bulambo Lembelembe of the Church of Christ in Congo.
The bishops say they do not support any particular candidate but instead want the people to vote their conscience and elect a leader they deem trustworthy.
“We have told everyone to prepare to participate in the elections. We have urged them to ensure the process is carried out in a peaceful atmosphere,” Archbishop Marcel Utembi, president of the Congo Catholic bishops conference, told Religion News Service.
More than 40 percent of the country’s people are Roman Catholics, while a similar proportion is Protestant. An estimated 10 percent are Muslims, while others follow an indigenous group known as Kimbanguist.
While rallying people to the polls, religious leaders have been leading prayer vigils and preaching against the violence that has marred the electoral campaigns.
On Dec. 13, a mysterious fire burned down the electoral commission’s warehouse in Kinshasa. Police reports indicated that nearly 8,000 of the 10,000 electronic voting machines and ballot boxes to be used in the capital for the election were destroyed. The computerized voting system, purchased from a South Korean firm, has been met with mistrust after a similar system was abandoned in Argentina because it was vulnerable to hacking.
Bishop Marcel Utembi in Kinshasa, Congo, on Dec. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/John Bompengo)
In eastern Congo, people are also dealing with an Ebola outbreak, posing a further obstacle to getting people to the polls.
“I think some people are running out of patience,” said Lembelembe. “This raising (of) tensions days before elections is not good.”
The race has attracted 21 presidential candidates, with Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, widely viewed as Kabila’s proxy, as a front-runner. The opposition has fielded two main candidates, Felix Tshisekedi and Martin Fayulu.
The Rev. Donatien Nshole, secretary-general of the bishops conference, stressed that the bishops only want to ensure that the election is credible.
Church leaders have urged the international community to accompany the people of Congo in this process.
“We want them to be there and tell the truth and defend the truth when the results are released,” said Utembi.
As they committed to open churches and mosques to children with HIV and tuberculosis, Christian and Muslim leaders in Kenya urged global pharmaceutical companies on Tuesday, November 20, to manufacture more medicines that are friendly to children.
The call came on Universal Children’s Day, established by the United Nations in 1954 to promote international awareness of children’s issues worldwide and improve their welfare.
Faith leaders, government officials and activists gathered with groups of children from across Kenya to focus on pediatric HIV and TB treatment, diagnosis and general support for children.
“The medicines for children are needed I would say very urgently, but we are happy to see some companies starting to manufacture the medicines. This is encouraging. We urge the companies which have not started to do so,” Pentecostal Bishop John Warari Wakabu, the national chairman of Kenya Christian Forum, told Religion News Service during a procession in Nairobi.
Sheikh Ali Juma, a Muslim leader from southwest Kenya, reinforced the view, saying the companies should help the children realize their rights of access to safe and affordable medicines.
“There are some tablets already, but some are difficult to take. Syrup formulation would go a long way,” said Juma.
According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, 2.1 million children were living with HIV at the end of 2017, born to HIV-positive mothers or infected during childbirth or breastfeeding. In 2017, the World Health Organization estimated a million children became ill with TB and 230,000 children died of the disease, including those with HIV-associated TB.
Leah Wanjiku feeds her 2-year-old daughter, Ngina, who is recovering from pediatric TB after an earlier misdiagnosis, on Nov. 19, 2018, in Nairobi, Kenya. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili
Palatable, affordable and easy to swallow drugs for children could turn around this situation, faith leaders say.
Pope Francis recently urged pharmaceutical companies to develop formulations that are suitable for children.
“Ministries of health and regulatory bodies must ensure the speedy registration of WHO pre-qualified medications for children,” said the Kenyan leaders in a statement.
The faith leaders said they have been inspired by the resilience of the children, who have written letters to the clergy, senior government officials and politicians seeking a solution to their challenges, but said that it is taking too long to roll out modern diagnostics and drug therapies.
The clergy are also dedicated to countering misinformation about HIV and TB that fuels stigma against those with the diseases. Children with HIV and TB are being welcomed, along with their parents, to houses of worship, and the clergy plan to make acceptance of young sufferers of HIV and TB the topic of sermons.
“We need safe spaces in the churches and mosques since they are supposed to be places of refuge,” said the Rev. Jane Ng’ang’a, coordinator of the Kenya chapter of the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or personally Affected by HIV and AIDS. “We have had some which focus on the spiritual side. We have not concentrated on the social side.”
Sheikh Yusuf Nasur Abuhamza, a Muslim leader in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, said imams often used to condemn those who were HIV-positive, but now the Islamic community hopes to empower them.
Kenya, in red, in eastern Africa. Map courtesy of Creative Commons
“We are saying that HIV or TB is a disease like any other. We are preaching to the communities how to integrate and live as good neighbors,” said Abuhamza.
Meanwhile, the leaders say faith healing is still a challenge in managing HIV and TB in children, with some clergy prescribing prayers as an alternative to medication.
“We believe in the power of prayer,” said Wakabu, the Pentecostal bishop, but it is not a substitute for medication.
Congolese gynecologist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Denis Mukwege, in his office at Panzi Hospital on Feb. 6, 2013, in eastern Congo. Photo by PINAULT/VOA/Creative Commons
NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — At a tender age, Denis Mukwege accompanied his father, a Pentecostal church pastor, as he moved around the villages of Congo’s South Kivu Province praying for sick parishioners.
Those experiences inspired Mukwege to become a doctor — and later to found Panzi Hospital, a church-run facility in Bukavu, a community in eastern Congo. There, Mukwege has become known as the doctor who heals women suffering horrific damages after rape.
On Oct. 5, Mukwege and Nadia Murad, a young Iraqi human rights activist, won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict in their countries.
The 63-year-old gynecologist, a Pentecostal Christian, is the medical director at Panzi Hospital, where for two decades he has treated thousands of women and girls badly mutilated after being subjected to rape.
In eastern Congo, armed men have been using rape as a weapon of war in a prolonged conflict largely centered on the control of mineral wealth. The region is rich in tantalum, a rare earth metal, along with tungsten and gold.
“I think they want to destroy the community. They rape in the presence of family members and the villagers,” Mukwege told this writer in an interview at Panzi Hospital at the peak of the violence in 2009.
“I feel bad when I see children, the same age as mine, have been raped, and they have been destroyed. They have no rectum, no sex organs, and this has been done by men who just want to destroy. This affects me as a person.”
But at the hospital, survivors of sexual violence have been finding help.
The doctor has been performing reconstructive surgery, giving them a new lease of life. And when they leave the hospital, the women are also emotionally and mentally empowered, apart from receiving financial and educational support to help rebuild their lives.
Since its founding, the hospital has treated more than 85,000 women and girls with complex gynecological injuries. More than 50,000 are survivors of sexual violence.
Rape survivors learn practical skills while recovering at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu in eastern Congo in 2009. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili
The doctor has dedicated his award to women all over the world harmed by conflict and suffering violence every day.
“Indeed, this honor is an inspiration because it shows that the world is … paying attention to the tragedy of rape and sexual violence and that the women and children who have suffered far too long are not being ignored,” Mukwege said in a statement released soon after he learned of the prize. He was in the midst of a surgery when the announcement was made.
“This Nobel Prize reflects this recognition of the suffering and the need for just reparation for female victims of rape and sexual violence in countries across the world and all continents.”
According to the doctor, the Nobel Prize will have real meaning only if it helps mobilize people to change the situation for victims of armed conflict. For years, he has advocated for the reclassification of sexual assaults, gang rapes and sexual mutilations by soldiers as war crimes. He has taken this advocacy to the United Nations, the U.N. Security Council and other international organizations.
Since the beginning, his work has been inspired by his faith.
In 1999, he founded the Panzi Hospital with support from the Communauté des Eglises de Pentecôte en Afrique Centrale. CEPAC, which was founded in 1921 by Swedish Pentecostals, is one of the largest Pentecostal groups in Congo. The church manages the hospital.
Although the hospital’s main focus is to offer medical and psychological treatment to survivors of sexual violence, it runs other projects too, including a training for medical staff on repair of fistulas, an HIV and AIDS program and a nutrition one, among others.
In Congo, CEPAC has an estimated membership of about 800,000 in more than 700 congregations concentrated in the eastern parts. The church runs more than 1,000 schools and about 160 health centers and implements several humanitarian and development projects in the war-torn region.
“We (churches) see Dr. Mukwege as a true blessing and a gift from God to CEPAC and Congo,” the Rev. Mateso Muke, spokesman of the 8th Community of Pentecostal Churches in Central Africa, said in a telephone interview Thursday (Oct. 18). “It’s a rare commitment to be helping ordinary citizens badly affected by violence, especially women. He is a true patriot.
“The award has given a good image to CEPAC and its work. Through him Congo and Africa have got a true defender of peace,” added Muke.
Other churches in eastern Congo have welcomed news of Mukwege’s Nobel Prize, saying it will boost the war against sexual violence in the region.
“We are very happy,” Bishop Josue’ Bulambo Lembelembe of the Church of Christ in Congo said. “This is also great recognition for the work of the church.”
Roman Catholic Archbishop Marcel Utembi Tapa of Kisangani said the award was an encouragement to all to oppose any forms of violence against women.
“The criminal use of rape as a weapon of war is a serious violation of life and respect for all human beings, especially women,” said Utembi.
NAIROBI, Kenya – Dr. Evan Atar Adaha knows that faith matters to many of his patients at the Maban Referral Hospital in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State.
So, before administering the anesthetic for surgery, he recites verses from the Bible or the Quran with patients. Then the 52-year-old surgeon, who is Roman Catholic, follows with a short prayer — according to the patient’s faith — before taking up his surgical knife.
“My faith contributes a lot to my work,” said the surgeon, who is known simply as Atar. “I am inspired by a belief that we are all from one God. As we work, I keep telling my colleagues that we are one family and we must save lives.”
Atar is the only surgeon in Maban Referral Hospital. For more than two decades he has provided medical services to people fleeing war and persecution in Sudan and South Sudan.
Along with his surgical duties, he can also be found pushing the operating table, playing with a newborn or even fixing a light.
On Sundays, he relaxes by going to church.
For his service to refugees, the doctor has been named the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 2018 Nansen Award winner. He received the award Oct. 1 in Geneva, Switzerland.
“Dr. Atar’s work through decades of civil war and conflict is a shining example of profound humanity and selflessness,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, in a statement. “Through his tireless efforts, thousands of lives have been saved, and countless men, women, and children provided with a new chance to rebuild the future.”
Named after Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer and humanitarian, the award honors extraordinary service to refugees, displaced people and the stateless. According to the UNHCR website, the award includes $150,000 to fund a project designed in tandem with the agency.
“I am humbled by this award. It comes with some resources. We will use them to meet our next challenges,” said Atar, who is also the medical director in the 120-bed hospital, located about 600 kilometers southeast of the South Sudan capital, Juba.
Over the years, his hospital — which handles all manner of medical problems, including gunshot wounds, malaria and cesarean sections — has become a lifesaver for more than 200,000 people in the troubled region. Of these, 140,000 are refugees who fled violence in Sudan’s Blue Nile region.
Originally from Torit town in southern South Sudan, Atar studied medicine in Khartoum and later practiced in Egypt. In 1997, he moved to Kurmuk in Blue Nile State at the height of a Sudanese civil war. Amid falling bombs and intense fighting between government forces and rebels, he ran a health center that treated both civilians and fighters.
Increased bombing by the Sudanese air force in 2011 forced Atar and his team to flee with thousands of refugees to Maban, where he continued providing similar services.
“We started from nothing. At one time I had to bring down a door for use as an operating table,” he said.
The health center eventually grew into a hospital, with assistance from the UNHCR and from Samaritan’s Purse, the international evangelical relief organization run by Franklin Graham. “We still are trying to see how we can expand the hospital to offer more services to the people.”
In South Sudan, health care is often is short supply. There are serious shortages of drugs, equipment and skilled medical personnel. Armed groups also loot medical facilities and have kidnapped, detained and killed doctors and nurses.
When the country became independent in 2011, there were 120 doctors and 100 nurses serving a population of 12 million, according to UNHCR. In Maban, Atar has a 53-member staff, including three other doctors — two from Kenya and one from Uganda.
Atar’s wife and three children live in Nairobi. He sees them only a few times a year.
Most of his time is consumed with keeping the hospital running. Atar says his staff needs more training and equipment. And there’s never enough room for patients.
The hospital’s maternity ward has 30 beds, said Atar. He’d like to see that number doubled. At times, he said, there’s not enough room and maternity patients have to sleep on the floor.
Thousands of Catholics sing as they prepare to welcome Pope Francis to Nairobi, Kenya, on Nov. 24, 2015. Africa is a deeply religious continent. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili
NAIROBI, Kenya — When the doors swing open every Sunday morning, churches in Africa welcome thousands of new followers.
On this deeply religious continent, both Christianity and Islam are on the rise. But small groups of determined atheists are challenging Africa’s grip on faith while seeking recognition and more followers.
Across Africa, groups have emerged stressing science and critical thinking as a better way of understanding the natural world.
Harrison Mumia, president of Atheists in Kenya, in Nairobi. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili
One such group, Atheists in Kenya, has gained prominence and is now campaigning for a public holiday, Atheist Day, on February 17.
“We are asking the government to declare a public holiday as a way of raising awareness of atheism in Kenya,” said Harrison Mumia, the group’s president.
“We want to promote science and skepticism, and have an approach to morality that is rational and humanistic,” Mumia said.
Atheists in Nigeria are also becoming more vocal, pushing for public policies that are not influenced by religious belief but by critical thinking and science-based evidence.
“We have formed a legal body — the Atheist Society of Nigeria — to push for the vision of secular Nigeria,” said Calistus Igwilo, the group’s president.
Atheists have organized in most sub-Saharan African countries, including Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Uganda.
The groups say their numbers are on the rise, but membership is still relatively small.
Atheists in Kenya estimates it has 650 members in 2018, up from 60 in 2014, and boasts a social media following of more than 10,000. The Atheist Society of Nigeria counts about 5,000 members.
“This is quite remarkable, considering that very few atheists are willing to come out due to the stigma associated with being an atheist,” said Mumia.
Clerics and scholars are confident atheists will face an uphill battle in attracting a wider following. The future of Christianity lies in Africa, and by 2060, more than 4 in 10 Christians will call sub-Saharan Africa home, up from 26 percent in 2015, according to Pew Research Center.
In addition, 27 percent of all Muslims will live in sub-Saharan Africa by 2060, according to Pew. By contrast, atheists compose about 2 percent of the continent’s population.
Jesse Mugambi, professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Nairobi, said atheism and agnosticism are shunned in traditional African thought.
“Many Kenyans consider Kenya to be a God-fearing country,” added Mumia. “Atheists are therefore considered devil worshippers.”
Some atheists have been laid off from work for refusing to participate in religious practices. Others are disowned by their families.
“They look quite strange (on) the continent where the concept of God spreads wide, even to the heart of African traditional communities,” said Wilybard Lagho, vicar general of the Catholic Archdiocese of Mombasa, in Kenya. “It is a very difficult task.”