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Where the Pope was to celebrate Mass is now on the front line …


Photo by Alexis Huguet / AFP

Hugues Lefèvre - published on 02/01/23

The Bishop of Goma, at the heart of the conflict in eastern DRC, explains how he has to take a helicopter to some of his parishes. And he notes how much of the conflict is tied to the West ...

Willy Ngumbi, 57, is the bishop of Goma, a diocese at the heart of a conflict that has ravaged the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo for months. Last July, Pope Francis had planned to visit this area but that trip was cancelled due to his knee, and undoubtedly due to security concerns in the region. Months have passed and the situation has deteriorated further. “The site where the Pope was to celebrate Mass last July is now on the front line,” says the bishop.

Thus, Bishop Ngumbi will be taking a delegation of victims of the conflicts in eastern DRC to Kinshasa, where they will have the chance to meet the Pope in what promises to be a moving moment of the trip. The Pope is in the DRC until February 3, when he moves on to South Sudan.

What does the security situation look like in your diocese?

The diocese of Goma is currently cut in two. A whole part is occupied by the M23 rebels [an armed group formed in March 2009 and essentially composed of Rwandophones from northern Congo who accuse the DRC of marginalizing the Tutsis, editor’s note]. So I can’t go to these occupied areas and the priests who are on that side can’t come to see me. My diocese has about 1 million faithful, and about 250,000 are now in the part controlled by the M23. For the time being, these men give the [priests] freedom to celebrate Masses. The rebels are mixed. There are Catholics among them.

How does the population live?

The situation is difficult. What worries us most is the problem of the schools. They have not been functioning for almost a year. The M23 would like to reopen them, but the parents are suspicious and do not want to let their children go to school. As a result, thousands of children are not receiving an education. This is a great misfortune.

In July 2022, the Pope was supposed to come to your diocese. This trip to Africa was canceled and the stop in Goma was removed from the second version of the trip itinerary. Do you understand this decision?

When the announcement was made that the trip would be postponed, people were disappointed. But as the M23 rebellion continued, people understood the difficulty of bringing the Pope, in addition to his health problems. Now, it is clear that the security situation was the main reason for canceling the stop in Goma. For example, the site where the Pope was to celebrate Mass last July is now on the front line. It would have been impossible to organize a mass there.

You are going to accompany a group of people who have been victims of violence in the region to Kinshasa …

This was a request from the Holy Father himself. Since he could no longer come, he said he wished to meet victims from the east of the country in Kinshasa. Thus, victims will come from Ituri, Bunia, Butembo, Beni, Goma and then Bukavu or Uvira, in South Kivu. In all, there will be about 50 victims. They are arriving in Goma. We will spend a few days together to get to know each other and then we will go to Kinshasa to meet the Pope.

Who are these victims who will meet the Pope?

There are young girls who have been abused, taken into the forests by rebels to be used as sex slaves. Some have returned pregnant. There are also men who have been abused, who have escaped death. The Pope will hear the testimonies of people who have managed to escape from the ADF [a rebel group that some affiliate with the Islamic State, editor’s note]. There will also be children who were conscripted by armed forces, others who were taken to work in the mines. And then there will be victims of the volcanic eruption of May 2021 that affected the Goma region.

Not all the victims in this delegation are Christian. There are, for example, Muslims who have suffered from the ADF’s violence. The violence does not only affect just Christians, it affects everyone.

What do you expect from the Pope’s visit to the DRC?

We expect him to give a message that speaks of reconciliation. In this region, with all the wars and violence, there are many wounds. The armed groups present here are mostly defense groups. Each time, they want to protect their community from others. The Pope will send a message of reconciliation, peace and justice. There is so much injustice here, in the distribution of wealth for example. We need peace. We have not had peace for almost 30 years, since the genocide in neighboring Rwanda. A whole generation has never known peace!

Are you hoping for an appeal from the Pope to the international community?

Of course. First of all, the most urgent thing would be for the international community to help us on a humanitarian level. With the conflict in Ukraine, the world has forgotten us. If I take only the city of Goma and its outskirts, we have 150,000 displaced persons from the war. Today, only the city’s inhabitants help the displaced, by giving them a little food, some clothes, blankets. We don’t feel that there is a great deal of interest from the outside world on the humanitarian front.

Secondly, we know that behind the armed groups, of which the M23 is a part, there are sponsors who come from outside. We spoke not long ago about the M23 massacre in Kishishe in December. This village was right next to a strategic mineral area… It is around these zones that massacres take place. And we also know that these minerals do not benefit the Congo, or even Rwanda, but end up in the West.

The Pope regularly denounces the exploitation of Africa by the West…

Yes, it is a very important support. The exploitation of resources must benefit our people, our children, our schools and hospitals. We have no roads here! To visit some parishes, I have to take a helicopter, with the protection of MONUSCO [the UN’s stabilization mission in the DRC, editor’s note]. 

The Pope also deplores the arms trade in Africa. We don’t make weapons here! They come from the West. Who benefits from these wars?

Presidential elections are scheduled for this year in the DRC. Will the Pope be able to encourage the respect of the rule of law, as the previous election results were contested by the DRC’s bishops?

We expect the Pope to remind us that elections must be free and transparent, without corruption or trafficking. We dream of this. I believe that the Pope will speak about it. In this election year, he can’t not say anything about it. However, we know that for these elections to be successful, peace must return…

AfricaDemocratic Republic of CongoPope Francis
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