In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire, Bishop Nicolas Djomo is a bridge builder. Whenever the funds are available, he calls for the construction of a new bridge in the Diocese of Tshumbe, which he has shepherded since late 1997.
In a country in which infrastructure has been given short shrift amid internal and regional conflict, these efforts address a need that governmental leaders have proven unable to satisfy.
But more significantly, Bishop Djomo is also a bridge builder in a figurative sense.
As a diocesan bishop as well as president of the national bishops’ conference, he has actively promoted peace in a country still reeling from the Second Congo War.
The war, which began early in Djomo’s second year as bishop of Tshumbe, raged on from 1998-2003 with the Congo being one of eight African nations embroiled in the conflict.
“The first five years [as bishop], it was very, very tough because the diocese is isolated; it’s remote,” Bishop Djomo said.
Early in the war, he said, the Tshumbe region was cut off from the capital city of Kinshasa, requiring the Church to serve as the primary provider of education, health care and other essential services, as well as a safe haven for women.
During the war, while hostilities between Congo, Rwanda and Burundi were still ongoing, the bishops conferences of those three countries met with one another and delivered messages of peace to each country’s president.
According to the best estimates, Bishop Djomo said, at least five million people died during the war, which also produced two million refugees and resulted in one million internally displaced.
The after-effects of the conflict are still being felt today.
“Because of the war, the poverty is huge,” Bishop Djomo said, “so most of the population [is] living with less than one dollar a day.”
He said there is also a large number of orphans and street children, for whom the Local Church is working to provide shelter and schooling.
And even today, seven years after the Second Congo War officially ended, violence and atrocities continue in the eastern part of the country, where armed groups profit from the sale of gold, coltan, wolframite and cassiterite mined by locals under inhumane conditions. Such “conflict minerals” are often used in the manufacturing of cell phones, computers and other products.
Bishop Djomo, while visiting the Diocese of San Diego and other California dioceses in May, urged support for U.S. legislation requiring companies to disclose the source of their minerals. The goal is to discourage the purchase of minerals from mines that are tied to human rights abuses and armed conflict.
Closer to home, Bishop Djomo has launched several peace building initiatives within the Congo.
He was among the participants in the Synod of Bishops for Africa, which met in October 2009 at the Vatican. The synod’s theme was “The Church in Africa at the Service of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace.” Its purpose, he said, was to discuss how the Church could further the cause of peace in Africa.
Bishop Djomo said the synod concluded with a call for all African Catholics to sow the seeds of peace in their daily interactions with others, for Catholic schools to educate toward “a culture of peace,” for each diocesan bishop to make peace building a pastoral priority and for Catholic political leaders to govern according to the dictates of their faith.
Current peace building efforts in the Congo include plans for a peace studies institute at the Catholic university in Kinshasa, as well as cultural exchanges between Catholic youth from the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.
This October, Bishop Djomo said, a major regional meeting of Church leaders will take place in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, to further discuss “the contribution of the Church for a lasting peace in central Africa.”
Reflecting on the recommendations of last year’s synod, Bishop Djomo said, “That every Catholic be a peace instrument, everywhere in Africa, that is our goal.”
Printed with permission from the Southern Cross, newspaper for the Diocese of San Diego.