Vatican Reacts to Escalating Congo Crisis

Calls for Strong Response From World Community

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GOMA, Congo, NOV. 4, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The Vatican is calling on the international community to bolster crumbling peace agreements as tens of thousands of refugees flee escalating conflicts in the Congo.

The president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Renato Martino, said in a statement Thursday: “The world cannot continue looking on without reacting to the death of innocent victims of acts of violence and barbarity, and with indifference toward the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the war, who are exposed to the weather, sickness and hunger.

“The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace also asks the international community to intervene with all its strength in resolving the conflict in question, especially in seeing to the fulfillment of the various peace accords that have been signed by the parties concerned.”

The council called for a resolution of the conflict: “There can be no integral peace if it is not based upon dialogue and reconciliation, which are necessary conditions for stability and solid development.”

The situation

After years of civil war, tensions in Congo were temporarily pacified in a January peace agreement. On Aug. 28, the peace was broken as renegade Rwandan General Laurent Nkunda marched an army of fellow Tutsis toward Goma, the North Kivu province capital.

The Rwandan rebel army claims it is protecting Tutsis from the Hutu groups who are responsible for their country’s 1994 genocide. Nkunda marched toward Goma to request an audience with Congolese government officials, engaging in skirmishes with pro-government militia along the way.

A ceasefire was declared on Oct. 29 as the army neared their destination. However, the government rejected the demand for direct talks, stating that they are open for dialogue with all of the rebel or militia groups, but none individually. Nkunda’s spokesperson stated that this leaves them with one option: war. He alleged that Angola and Zimbabwe are already mobilizing to join in the fighting, although this has not been confirmed.

Refugee aid

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of refugees have fled from the approaching army and the impending violence. Claims of raping and looting have come from many, and several refugee camps were razed. Although the U.N. Mission in Congo (MONUC) has 17,000 troops in the area, they have been unsuccessful in protecting the civilians.

An anonymous aid worker said, “The world doesn’t want to hear about [Kivu…] yet in the shadow of this crisis, people are dying as a result of an uncontrolled war — right under the eyes of the U.N. and its troops.”

Two Catholic charities, Aid to the Church in Need and Caritas Internationalis, have attempted to relieve the developing humanitarian crisis. ACN sent more than $25,000 to the Diocese of Goma, to provide food, blankets and medicine to the people. Thousands are without food and water, and several outbreaks of cholera have been reported. The clergy working with the people spoke of the concern that the situation will become “a second Darfur.”

The Tutsi army has agreed to allow some emergency aid to the people, though with strict conditions. Caritas is appealing for peace, and requesting to be allowed to provide aid to the people. Their emergency response aims to provide food and other items to 90,000 refugees in eastern Congo. The food distribution was halted when aid workers were unable to travel due to fighting.

Caritas Internationalis Africa Liaison Officer Father Pierre Cibambo said, “We’re witnessing the escalation of a humanitarian disaster that threatens to now engulf eastern Congo and the region. The 1998-2003 war and the resulting humanitarian crisis cost the lives of 5.4 million people. A return to war will be a catastrophe.

“It has become difficult for Caritas to provide food and medicine to people who are in urgent need. All sides of the conflict have a duty to allow aid agencies access to the population and to protect the lives of civilians. […] All sides must abide by the agreements they have signed up to. Congo’s people have for too long been held hostage by the conflict. We risk losing the positive steps made since free and fair elections in 2006 and a successful round of peace negotiations in January 2008.”

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