Thousands of Congolese churchgoers join nationwide marches against eastern violence

Protesters march during a protest march that was called by Congo's Catholic and Protestant churches to protest against escalating violence in the East of the country, in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, December 4, 2022. REUTERS/Justin Makangara

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Christians took to the streets across Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday to protest violence in eastern regions, as church leaders accused the international community of hypocrisy over Rwanda's alleged role in the fighting.

After Sunday services, churchgoers in the capital Kinshasa and other major cities heeded a call from the conference of Catholic bishops to march against the conflict with the M23 rebel group, which Congo accuses Rwanda of supporting.

Rwanda denies this.

"We say no to war, no to a divided Congo," said Blaise Emmanuel, vicar at St. Elizabeth's parish, who with other priests led a procession in Montgafula, one of the poorest communes in Kinshasa.

The mass protests were the most significant since an escalation in fighting in recent months between state forces and M23. The violence has displaced an estimated 390,000 people, according to U.N. agency OCHA.

Demonstrators in Kinshasa sang and carried banners reading: "No to balkanisation, no to the hypocrisy of the international community. The DRC is not for sale."

Many in Congo have for years accused the West of failing to hold Rwanda to account for its alleged role in stoking insecurity in the east.

The European parliament in late November called on Rwanda not to support the M23 rebels. But last week the European Commission was criticised in Congo for a decision to give 20 million euros ($21 million) to support Rwandan troops helping fight Islamist insurgents in Mozambique.

At the end of the march in Montgafula, protesters sang the national anthem and a priest holding a Congolese flag climbed on to a chair to address the crowd.

"It is the small country that is fighting us," said Father Theophile Landu in reference to Rwanda. "Behind it are the United States and the European Union. We tell them that they must stop the hypocrisy."

In August, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said reports by U.N. experts that Rwanda continued to support the M23 were "credible". Rwanda's government has disputed the findings.

Anti-Western sentiments were aired in other cities in protests where high-profile attendees included the head of the Senate, several ministers, and lawmakers from the ruling party and the opposition.

Congo and Rwanda took part in talks in late November aimed at finding solutions to the conflict. Other negotiations led by the seven-member East African Community (EAC) are ongoing.

($1 = 0.9489 euros)

(Editing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by David Holmes)

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