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October 29 — Christophe Munzihirwa

 

Today’s Bible reading

Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this:

‘Blessed are the dead,
those who die in the Lord from this moment on!’”

“Yes,” says the Spirit, “so they can rest from their hard work, because their deeds will follow them.” — Revelation 14:13

More thoughts for meditation about Christophe Munzihirwa (1926-1996)

Born in Lukambo, Belgian Congo Munzihirwa was ordained a priest in 1958 and joined the Jesuits in 1963. He studied social science and economics in Belgium, but returned to his country in 1969, nine years after independence, to become the formation director for Jesuits in the Kinshasha province.

His prophetic streak surfaced in 1971, when the government of CIA-backed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko responded to a youth protest movement by forcibly enrolling university-age persons, including seminarians, in the military for two years. Munzihirwa insisted on being enlisted alongside his novices, much to the embarrassment of the regime.

Munzihirwa became the Jesuit provincial superior for Central Africa in 1980. In 1986 he was made a coadjutor bishop in Kasongo, and in 1993 he became archbishop of Bukavu.

Munzihirwa earned fame for his refusal to accept patronage from Mobutu. That occasionally created obstacles for him, as in 1995 when a Catholic missionary and members of an international solidarity movement were arrested in Kasongo. When Munzihirwa demanded their release, military officials taunted him for not being a “friend” of Mobutu. Munzihirwa solved the problem by saying that until the group was let go, he would sleep outside their cell. They were freed that evening.

Munzihirwa was unafraid to denounce what he considered military misconduct. During a mid-1990s Mass to install a new bishop in Kasongo, in a time in which Mobutu had ordered the city sacked because he believed it was harboring dissenters, Munzihirwa said: “Here before me I see these soldiers. I see the colonel. Stop troubling the people! I ask you, I order you: Stop it!” The commander wanted Munzihirwa taken into custody, and he replied: “I am ready. Arrest me.” Other bishops present, however, intervened and prevented the arrest.

Despite that gesture of solidarity, Munzihirwa’s criticisms of Mobutu at times left him isolated within Zaire’s bishops’ conference. In 1995, a missionary asked him why the bishops were not more outspoken, and he replied: “Father, you can’t imagine. We are just a short distance removed from being part of the presidential mouvance,” a French term meaning “inner circle.”

After the genocide began in Rwanda in 1994, Munzihirwa became an outspoken protector of the Hutu refugees who flooded his diocese. He recognized that a few had committed atrocities against Tutsis, but regarded most as innocent victims. He called for healing across ethnic boundaries. “In these days, when we continue to dig common graves, where misery and sickness appear along thousands of kilometers, on routes, along pathways and in fields … we are particularly challenged by the cry of Christ on the Cross: `Father, forgive them,'” Munzihirwa said in an August 1994 homily. “God’s mercy, which breaks the chain of vengeance, is hurtful to militants on every side. But in reality, that is the only thing that can definitively shatter the infernal circle of vengeance.”

Final days

As Rwandan troops poured into the eastern part of what was then Zaire in the fall of 1996, Archbishop Christophe Munzihirwa issued a final, fervent plea for help. “We hope that God will not abandon us and that from some part of the world will rise for us a small flare of hope,” he said in his Oct. 28 message, broadcast to anyone, anywhere, who might have been listening. As it turned out, no one was.

The civil and military leaders of the region, representing the last shreds of the crumbling autocratic regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, had fled weeks before, knowing that Mobutu was doomed and the Rwandans were unstoppable. Those Rwandans were largely members of the country’s Tutsi minority who blamed Mobutu for harboring Hutu militants, and as their armed bands moved east they were killing anyone who got in their way.

Munzihirwa, bishop of the diocese of Bukavu in eastern Zaire since 1993, was thus all that stood between hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees and potential annihilation. He had long criticized all parties to the region’s violence. His last hope, shared with the handful of missionaries and diocesan personnel who stayed behind with him to shelter the refugees, was for rapid intervention by the international community. It was not to be. Less than 24 hours later, in the afternoon of Oct. 29, death came for the archbishop.

Munzihirwa, a Jesuit who called himself a “sentinel of the people,” was shot and killed by a group of Rwandan soldiers, his body left to decay in the deserted streets of the city of Bukavu. (It was more than 24 hours before a small group of Saverian seminarians was able to recover the body and prepare it for burial). Munzihirwa had surrendered himself in the hope that two companions might be able to get away in his car; they, too, however, had been caught and executed. At his Nov. 29 funeral, someone recalled Munzihirwa’s favorite saying: “There are things that can be seen only with eyes that have cried.”

In Munzihirwa’s region of Central Africa millions of people died since in a continental war, involving the armies of eight nations and an ever-shifting constellation of rebel groups. Other conflicts in the Sudan, in Algeria, in Angola, in Sierra Leone — in a bewildering series of trouble spots scattered across the continent — claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Inevitably, killing on such a vast scale creates martyrs, people of faith who lose their lives because they refuse to turn away from danger.

Archbishop Christophe Munzihirwa has become a symbol of hope and resistance in his country, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. His martyrdom was not unexpected, at least not to him. Munzihirwa had written in an Easter meditation: “Despite anguish and suffering, the Christian who is persecuted for the cause of justice finds spiritual peace in total and profound assent to God, in accord with a vocation that can lead even to death.”

More?

Hutu/Tutsi conflict [3-minute video]

Long but great video on the Congo Conflict(s), conflict resolution and Munzihirwa

Suggestions for action

See where Bukavu is on Google Maps.

Conflict resolution is sometimes a lost cause, especially if the church is not committed to it. Consider where our church is today — what are we doing to stay reconciled? What is the responsibility of Jesus followers when society breaks down?