Beleaguered priest fights Mobutu’s dictatorship and Church hierarchy

The Guardian, 5 August 1991

Mark Huband in Kinshasa

THE tall brick tower of St Paul’s Catholic church rises out of the slums of Limete, one of Kinshasa’s sprawling suburbs of tiny homes where lights never seem to have come on.

There is a tall double gate whose squeaking breaks the evening calm, and a large sandy courtyard. The doorbell has a small cage around it, with a padlock to prevent it from being stolen.

Father José Mpundu never expected to be living here, taking mass in the small church but living outside the Church structure, which has, he says, all but tried to forget that he exists.

The Church continues to pay him, but that is about it. He has almost been silenced, which is what the hierarchy wanted.

“It all started after the death of Cardinal Malula in Kinshasa in 1989,” Fr Jose says. “He didn’t necessarily support me, but he encouraged me to follow my calling. I denounce all dictators wherever they are: in the country, in the church, in the family, and in the schools.”

Fr José attended Kinshasa’s Jesuit college and was ordained in 1978. He studied in Belgium and is a professor of psychology. But when Cardinal Malula died and the Church withdrew into prayer as Zaire began demanding political reform, his rise in the Church was suddenly halted.

“My problems began after the governor of Kinshasa accused me of trying to incite the people to overthrow the government in March 1989.” At the same time, a Belgian cleric was expelled from Zaire after being accused of subversion. “I tried to get the Church to protest about this, but it didn’t support me, as it was frightened.”

In March 1990, Zaire’s President, Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko, invited the public to to write to the government with suggestions on how vicious and corrupt political system could be reformed.

Fr José’s religious pressure group, Amos, sent a letter reflecting on the need to delay a national conference which was to be hurriedly held two weeks after it had been announced. The conference is due to open this month.

President Mobutu, a devout Catholic, passed the letter to Fr José’s bishop, who responded by accusing the priest and his group of being involved in politics.

Fr José was dismissed as secretary of the Episcopal Peace and Justice Commission and dropped from his duties in the Church bureaucracy.

“I feel like a reject,” he says. “Our bishops are exactly like the prince-bishops of the Middle Ages. Their power was exactly like the political power here.”

The sound of evensong floats across the courtyard into his book-lined room, as he speaks. On his desk there is a computer on which he plays Scrabble to kill time.

Although the Catholic Church is likely to become directly involved in Zaire’s political process by accepting the nomination of a senior figure as chairman of the national conference, the gap between the political choices on offer and the aspirations of those who refuse to compromise is becoming clearer, Fr José says.

“The opposition is made up of opportunists. They all worked with Mobutu at one time or another. It is we, the people, who create dictators, and in Afirica we believe that the chief is the chief because he is rich. If he’s not rich, then we don’t see him as a chief. So they get rich any way they can.

“It’s the same with the Church,” he says. People give the Church money, even though they have little themselves. “The mentality is such that they continue to enrich the rich.”

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