Leaders of the Catholic Church in Africa are calling for humanitarian aid and peace efforts in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo after rebel forces captured a major city.

In light of "the mission of Christian charity and solidarity," the African bishops called on various charitable organizations to renew and strengthen their efforts to ease "the suffering afflicting these brothers and sisters."

Meeting in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa to discuss nonprofit work in the region, bishops from 34 African nations issued a Nov. 22 statement condemning the recent violence in the city of Goma and calling for an international response.

Fighting between a rebel group known as M23 and the Congolese army intensified when the rebels seized the major eastern city of Goma, home to about one million people, on Nov. 20.

The violent clash has resulted in huge numbers of people being displaced from their homes and left without food, water or shelter.

Originally a smaller rebel group that was integrated into the national army in a fragile 2009 peace agreement, the M23 rebels broke from the army several months ago and began taking over various cities across the country. Rwanda and Uganda have both been accused of supporting the rebel group.

Witnesses in Goma have reported that the situation remains precarious.

The bishops expressed solidarity and concern for the Congolese people, along with shock and outrage at the armed violence. They warned that the continuing clashes are causing a major humanitarian crisis that demands immediate attention.

The prelates observed that among the victims of the war are the thousands of men, women and children who have been displaced and abandoned in Goma and the surrounding areas.

"They are exposed to the bad weather, hunger, rape and all kinds of abuses, including recruiting of children into the army," the Church leaders said. "This constitutes an offence to their dignity as human beings and children of God."

Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have fled their homes and relief camps in Congo as the violence escalated. Aid groups in the area are working to provide for the essential needs of these people.

On Nov. 27, Catholic Relief Services said that it was committing a quarter of a million dollars to distributing essential items to thousands of people in Goma and the nearby area, where many now lack access to shelter and electricity.

Working with its local partners, Catholics Relief Services plans to distribute food, water and emergency supplies to about 10,000 displaced people in the coming days.

The organization said that its international staff members "have all been temporarily relocated to a safe location in neighboring Rwanda, where they remain in contact with their national colleagues who are reported safe in Goma."

Caritas offices in the region are open and currently assessing the needs of the community, said Fr. Oswald Musoni, director of Caritas Goma.

"The situation is calmer, but we're still uncertain about what tomorrow will bring," he explained.

The African bishops said that they are "convinced that the time is no longer for war or conquest, but rather to promote cooperation between peoples." They encouraged a fair, just and transparent use of natural resources and stressed that the "territorial integrity of the Democratic Republic of Congo must be protected and respected by all."

Joining their voices with those of the bishops of the Congo, the prelates called upon the nation's government, as well as the United Nations, the African Union and the European Union to work for immediate peace and respect for human life in Goma.

They also launched an appeal for help to other nations involved in the fighting and in multinational companies that extract resources in the area.

These international actors must use honest and transparent dialogue to "address the causes of this recurrent violence," they said, adding that this is the only way to find real peace and end the suffering, despair and violence that the people are currently experiencing.

"The perpetrators of such violence and destruction should be brought to justice," they added.

The bishops entrusted the situation to Mary, Our Lady of Africa and Our Lady of Peace, and asked God touch the lives of those who are engaging in acts of violence, opening their hearts to peace and fraternal respect.