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20 September 2001

Church of Christ in the Congo targets new ministry to uprooted people
Raymond Bitemo

When fighting broke out between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi in 1994, about a million refugees fled into what is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo (RDC). In 1996, widespread fighting in the RDC between rebels and government forces caused further refugee displacement. The devastating civil conflict in the RDC was renewed in 1998 and fighting continues sporadically, exacerbating the severe problem of uprooted people - refugees and internally displaced - in the region.

As well as doing all it can to try to stop the war, that it sees as the root cause of uprootedness in the Democratic Republic of Congo (RDC), the Church of Christ in the Congo (ECC) held an extensive consultation in Kinshasa, 5-16 August to educate its leaders and members on the issue of uprooted people and develop practical responses.

The ECC is a member of the World Council of Churches (WCC); the August consultation was followed by a meeting of the ECC executive committee that focused on the same issues. This article by Raymond Bitemo is the last in a series of three articles on uprooted people in the DRC, and part of a longer series on refugees and internally displaced persons. Bitemo, from Congo-Brazzaville, was forced to flee his home but now again lives in Congo-Brazzaville.

"What is the church doing?" was the question on most participants' minds on the third day of a consultation on "The church and the stranger: the Church of Christ in the Congo (ECC) and the care of uprooted people in the RDC" held in Kinshasa from 5 to 16 August. Their concern was expressed after they had listened to a litany of the problems encountered by uprooted people in the RDC, as recounted by church delegates from the provinces.

Responding to the question, "We're on our knees," ECC national secretary Mgr Marini Bodho admitted. "The size of our country with its 2,345,000 sq. km., the difficulties of communication, the war going on in most of the neighbouring countries... all these things make it difficult for the ECC to help uprooted people."

Each of the 62 member churches and communities of the ECC in the provinces nevertheless tries to offer moral and spiritual support to uprooted people, and some western churches are distributing food, clothing, agricultural implements and seed through the local churches. But according to a report from the provincial synod of South Kivu, "The churches' work with refugees is further complicated by an increase in the number of refugees, and by tensions developing between refugees and local populations over humanitarian aid." For his part, Bruno Miteyo, deputy director of the Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas, expressed the view that "none of our churches is doing very much". A possible solution, he said, might involve "pooling our efforts with the ECC to strengthen our capacity for intervention".

"No country can tackle this alone," argued Professor Georges Lantam of the University of Lomé (Togo) in reference to the problems encountered by uprooted people in other parts of the world. "The problem of uprootedness can only be solved through international solidarity in humanitarian terms and respect for the legal provisions applying to uprooted populations," he said.

Recurring and massive humanitarian crises
Since independence in 1960, the history of the DRC, then called Zaire, has been marked by crises - rebellions, red diarrhoea, resource pillaging and, wars - causing large-scale forced displacements of the population. Faced with these recurrent tragedies, the Church of Christ in Zaire (ECZ) in 1973 set up a Directorate for Refugees and Emergencies (DRU) whose mission was to receive, protect and support displaced people and refugees.

The DRU's main partner was the national office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but the service closed down in the nineties, having mismanaged UNHCR funds. As of 1975, many church agencies that until then had supported the ECZ's various ministries entirely withdrew their support; others maintained a "bilateral" link with one or other ECZ department. During this period, the WCC continued to support the church's ministries, including the DRU, the latter being part of an Africa-wide programme run by the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) and supported by the WCC. When the ECZ became the ECC in January 1999, this service was reopened as the Ministry of the ECC for Refugees and Emergencies (MERU), still under AACC direction and with WCC support.

Call for commitment
The new body relies on voluntary contributions from ECC member churches and, above all, on local and overseas partnerships. MERU now coordinates all the ECC's efforts to help displaced people and refugees from war-torn neighbouring countries, providing them with accommodation, food, medical care and other services.

Five internally displaced persons and refugees per day are referred by the government rehabilitation service to MERU for medical care in the centres run by ECC member churches. MERU is one of the operational partners involved in a long-term intervention programme set up by the local office of the World Food Programme (WFP) to help uprooted people. Along with the government, WFP and other churches, MERU is also part of a national coordinating committee for humanitarian affairs chaired by the Roman Catholic Church.

Addressing the meeting, the national director of MERU, Rev. Millengue Mwenelwata, said he hopes that what will come out of the consultation will be "commitment by the leaders of the Protestant communities to provide support for uprooted people, and renewed interest and support for the ECC's work from its various partners". Such commitment and support is all the more important in a context in which international humanitarian NGOs are tending to hand over responsibility to competent local NGOs.

The meeting made several recommendations on strategies for strengthening the operational capacity of MERU's national office. These included redefining its legal and institutional framework, strengthening structures and organizing meetings in the provinces and local communities, holding a "national day of uprooted people" to make people more aware of the problems, ensuring transparency in the handling of donations, mobilizing aid locally and from overseas. The WCC and the AACC were prominent among the twenty or so outside partners mentioned. The ECC for its part will need to be realistic about what it can do as it takes up the challenge of its ministry to uprooted people.

For more information contact:
Karin Achtelstetter
WCC Media Relations Officer
tel.: (+41 22) 791 6153 (office);
tel.: (+41 79) 284 5212 (mobile);
e-mail: media
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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.