“Hidden” war on Christians in Democratic Republic of Congo

Christians in the Democratic Republic of Congo are facing dramatically increased levels of persecution inflicted by Islamist rebels unhindered by an ineffective, corrupt government. But the religious dimension of the violence is not being acknowledged by international agents such as the US State Department and the United Nations, writes Linda Burkly, PhD, in this article which was orginally published in persecution.org

Fifteen years ago, I visited the DRC as one of a three-person contingency of US officials representing an international religious organisation. We had a twofold mission: encourage Christians in the DRC and check on local projects funded by the US church. We visited a school for the blind and other projects and dedicated a generator. We also spoke at church gatherings and seminars. I had the privilege of “preaching” at a church opening and conducting several women’s ministry seminars throughout the country. Thousands attended; the church denomination was one of the largest in the country. While it was reported that the country had been subject to instability due to corruption, clan oppression, and regional conflict, there was no indication that there was widespread persecution of Christians by terrorist groups during our visit.   

But that has changed; with the growth of multiple Islamic extremist and rebel groups perpetrating violence, coupled with an ineffective, complicit, and/or corrupt government, Christians in the DRC are suffering from unprecedented persecution. This phenomenon is not limited to the DRC but is occurring in neighboring sub-Saharan African countries as well. 

Recently, International Christian Concern (ICC) reported that during 10 days in April, 80 Christians were killed and hundreds abducted in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The atrocities were perpetrated by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), one of many extremist Islamic groups targeting Christians while seeking to establish Islamic law throughout the region. ICC reported, “For decades, the ADF has killed, maimed, abducted, and displaced millions of people in North Kivu despite the presence of peacekeepers and local and regional troops in the troubled region.” [1] 

While such attacks are not new to the area, they are becoming more frequent and violent. This year Open Doors World Watch List ranked DRC as 37 of the 50 worst countries persecuting Christians. [2] DRC appeared on the WWL for the first time in 2021, when it was ranked number 40. [3] These rising designations reflect a dramatic increase in the persecution occurring in the DRC.  

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Although 95% of the population are Christians,[4] their presence is diminishing in regions terrorised by the ADF and over 100 other armed groups. The ADF is most active in Ituri province and North Kivu in eastern DRC, where Christians are targeted with impunity. 

Christian villages are raided, churches are burned, and Christians are abducted and brutally killed if they refuse to recant their faith and convert to Islam. Women and girls are raped and forced to marry the perpetrators. Many Christians have fled to safer areas. “Prior to the outbreak of violence, one church denomination had 25 churches in the Beni area; today, they have eight. Another denomination had 54 churches and now have 11. Other denominations report similar patterns.” [5] 

The international community has voiced alarm at the widespread violent attacks occurring in eastern DRC. A senior UN human rights official, the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ilze Brands Kehris, traveled to the region in February 2023, visiting camps of internally displaced refugees and meeting with civil and military leaders. However, while she referenced ethnic groups being victimised, she omitted any reference to religious groups such as Islamic extremists or Christians. Kehri observed the “deteriorating security situation in the east of the country, where the Mouvement du 23 mars (M23) and various other armed groups, including the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo (CODECO) and Zaire, continue to engage in brutal attacks against civilians. Documented human rights violations and abuses include mass killings, mutilations, and conflict-related sexual violence, causing massive displacement and enduring trauma.” She concluded, “I strongly condemn these appalling attacks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and echo the Secretary-General’s call last weekend for ‘action for peace’ in Africa. The violence must stop. I also strongly encourage the authorities to redouble their efforts to counter rising hatred and implement targeted initiatives to promote trust and cohesion within and between communities,” she said. [6] 

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Despite the deep and longstanding US relations with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the State Department has ignored religious persecution specifically while focusing on more generalised topics which impact religious persecution: “combat corruption, uphold democratic processes and effective governance, promote stability and peace within the country and with its neighbors, improve security and justice institutions to strengthen state authority, ensure accountability for human rights abuses and violations.” [7] The U.S. is DRC’s largest bilateral donor and largest financial contributor to the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO). [8] Despite these factors, the US State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom’s recent reports highlighting persecution have omitted any reference to the DRC or any of the terrorist groups operating within its borders. [9] Moreover, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan body created to monitor religious freedom internationally and advise the US State Department, did not reference the DRC nor designate it as a country of concern in recent annual reports.[10] 

One could conclude that while some NGOs are raising the alarm regarding the religious persecution occurring in the DRC, governmental entities seem to be avoiding the topic. In the meantime, Christians are suffering horrific persecution in DRC. I often think of those I met while there; questions arise in my mind: Are they safe, alive, displaced, or victims of horrific attacks? I may never know.

Dr Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019, where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle co-chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr.. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Dr Burkle has worked with persecuted peoples in a number of countries, and her dissertation focused on religious persecution, specifically regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China, and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.

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