By Lisa Zengarini and Fr Stanislas Kambashi, SJ
As the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) leads up to its general elections in six months’ time, the bishops of the Central African nation are calling on Congolese citizens to vote for competence and moral integrity, and to be vigilant so as to ensure a credible electoral process.
On December 20, 2023, voters will elect the country’s President, Members of Parliament, Members of the Provincial Assemblies, and of Commune Councils.
Recurrent political crises
In a statement released last week at the close of their 60th plenary assembly in Lubumbashi, the capital of the Southern province of Haut-Katanga, the members of the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO), focused on the current political situation in the DRC, recalling that since its independence in 1960 the country has been marred by recurrent political crises related to disputes over the legitimacy of its institutions and leadership.
According to CENCO, stability and the well-being of the Congolese people rest on truly “free, inclusive, transparent and peaceful elections”.
Concern for the proliferation of armed groups
While acknowledging the diplomatic, political, and military initiatives efforts by the Congolese government to restore peace in the conflict-ridden nation, the bishops deplore the growing insecurity in several parts of the country.
They refer in particular to the Eastern provinces, where armed militias, in particular the resurging M23 group supported by neighbouring Rwanda, continue to threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.
They also mention the emerging Mobondo militia which is spreading terror in Western DRC, as well as the Special Brigade of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), a branch of the ruling party, “which sometimes collaborates with the police to hunt down political opponents and other peaceful citizens with a critical view of the country’s current governance.”
Security challenges, alongside “the proliferation of armed groups, are of the utmost concern to us,” CENCO members say, lamenting that it is unfortunate that their recommendations on security and national cohesion have gone unheeded
“The Congolese people want peace, justice and thus work for the progress of their country.”
The bishops further deplore the increasing tensions and dangerous polarization in the political arena which, they note, contrasts with the positive signals given by President Felix Tshisekedi at the beginning of his tenure in 2019.
Four years later, the message notes “a deplorable decline” of the political climate, marked by the “violent repression of opposition demonstrations, the restriction of the freedom of movement of opponents, attempts to draft discriminatory laws, the instrumentalization of justice and arbitrary arrests”.
Added to this is the intolerance of political fanatics, who don’t accept different political views and violently attack those they consider as enemies.
Call for responsibility and vigilance
In this difficult context, the bishops call for a massive and responsible participation of voters in the upcoming elections which, they say, is of vital importance for the future of the country.
General elections, they remark, provide citizens with an opportunity “to renew our confidence in the leaders of institutions that have served the country well, but also to sanction those who have mismanaged it by serving their own interests”.
As for new candidates, priority should be given “to the objective criteria of competence and moral integrity”.
The bishops also warn voters against tribalists, those who practice nepotism and bribery, as well as opportunists who change sides in pursuit of personal interests.
In light of the unfortunate experiences of past elections, including those on 2018, CENCO also calls on Congolese citizens to be vigilant and safeguard their ballots at the polling station.
The statement explains that if voters are aware of the results at the polling stations, officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), whose work has been called into question in past elections, “will have no choice but to confirm them”.
The bishops go on to call on CENI to guarantee the transparency of voting and tallying of the votes. Such transparency, they say, can be guaranteed “by complying with legal provisions concerning the mapping of polling centres and stations, the accreditation of election observers, political party witnesses, and journalists, the publication of final electoral lists, and the publication of provisional polling results by polling station.”
The bishops in DRC further demand the Judiciary to comply with the innovation introduced into the Electoral Law, which stipulates that judges must use the minutes and results sheets of the polling and counting stations, made available to them by CENI, to decide between candidates in the event of electoral disputes.
Gallup poll: Church attendance sees slight uptick; still below pre-pandemic levels
Although church attendance in the United States saw a slight uptick in 2023, fewer Americans are going to church than they did before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, according to a Gallup poll released June 26.
Gallup surveyed more than 1,000 Americans between May 1 and May 24, asking them whether they had attended church, synagogue, mosque, or temple within the last seven days. The results found that only 31% of respondents said they had. About 84% of worshippers were attending in person, but about 16% were still attending remotely.
The 31% attendance rate was the highest found by the pollsters since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 survey found that only 30% of respondents attended a service within the week they were polled, which dropped to 29% in 2021 and rose again to 30% in 2022.
Despite the slight uptick, the poll found that attendance was still three percentage points lower than the 34% attendance rate found in 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic began. However, the attendance was only one percentage point lower than the 32% rate found by pollsters in 2018, which was, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lowest-ever attendance rating found by pollsters.
The average rate of attendance from 2016 through 2019 was 34% and the average rate of attendance from 2020 through 2023 was 30%.
Post-pandemic church attendance rates declined more sharply among Catholics than it did among Protestants. The 2016-2019 average among Catholics was 37%, compared with a 2020-2023 average of only 30%. Protestants in the same time frame fell from 44% to 40%.
“It is not clear if the pandemic is the cause of the reduced attendance or if the decline is a continuation of trends that were already in motion,” Gallup Senior Editor Jeffrey M. Jones said in a news release accompanying the data. “However, the temporary closure of churches and ongoing COVID-19 avoidance activities did get many Americans out of the habit of attending religious services weekly.”
Church attendance is also substantially lower than the attendance rates found in the 1990s and the 2000s by Gallup pollsters. In the ’90s, church attendance fluctuated between 43% at its highest point and 38% at its lowest point. In the 2000s, attendance fluctuated between 44% at its highest point and 39% at its lowest point.
The poll showed that church attendance has generally been on the decline since 2009, when 42% of respondents said they had attended a service in the past week. After 2009, attendance rates have mostly been in the 30s, with only two exceptions: 40% attendance in 2012 and 29% attendance in 2021.
Church attendance was at its height in the mid- to late-1950s. The highest points were 49% in 1955 and 49% again in 1958. Gallup’s data goes back to 1939, but it did not conduct regular annual polls until the late 1980s.
Post-pandemic church attendance declined among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, according to the recent poll. From 2016 through 2019, about 45% of Republicans answered that they had attended a church service, compared with 40% from 2020 through 2023. In that same time frame, Independents declined from 30% to 25% and Democrats declined from 28% to 25%.
The margin of sampling error for the poll was plus or minus 4% with a 95% confidence level.