Congolese bishop: The Vatican under Francis is 'closer to the reality that we live'

Bishop Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Bokungu, Congo, in December 2008 (CNS/Paul Haring)

Rome — A Congolese bishop whose people face difficult questions of natural resource extraction and possible future political violence has said the Vatican under Pope Francis has become a place that understands their needs and makes him feel listened to.

"I believe the Holy See now is closer to our reality, to the reality that we live," Bishop Fridolin Ambongo Besungu said. "We have the impression that it is easier for them to understand better our situation."

"Before, it was very difficult," continued Ambongo, a Capuchin Franciscan who led his order's province encompassing the two Congos before being appointed bishop by Pope John Paul II in March 2005. "For me, this is a big, big change. We find now that what we are living is listened to here in the Vatican."

Ambongo, who leads the diocese of Bokungu-Ikela in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also said the changes to the Vatican seem "like a change not only in attitude here, but a new anthropology for the way of living our faith."

That new anthropology, the bishop said, is centered on two questions: "Who is man? Who is the human person?" Such anthropology, he said, "was spoken of at the Second Vatican Council, but now it has become a reality."

Ambongo, who also leads his episcopal conference's separate commissions on natural resources and justice and peace, was speaking March 4 in an interview in Rome.

The bishop had traveled from his country for meetings with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace regarding a new ecclesial network spanning several countries in Latin America to protect the Amazon River region.

The interview -- which lasted over an hour and was conducted in a mixture of English, Italian and French -- saw the prelate first talk about his hopes that such a network will also be implemented to protect the African equatorial forest before going on to speak about the difficulties that international resource mining is presenting for his people.

Ambongo also spoke about what he hopes to see in Francis' upcoming encyclical, which is to focus on environmental issues and is expected to be released in June or July. The prelate said he most hoped the pope's letter would address the delicate balance between protecting the environment and allowing development for the world's poorest people.

To underscore that issue, Ambongo told a story about a German company that purchased about 750,000 acres of equatorial forest near his diocese and intends to log the entire area. With help from Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Ambongo said he was able to arrange meetings between environmental ministers of Germany and the Congo that have temporarily stopped the logging project.

But the work-stoppage, he said, has also had negative effects, with the Congolese government blaming the bishops for inhibiting economic growth.

"For us, it is easy to say: 'No, don't touch the forest,' " Ambongo said. "But the people who live next to it have to have energy, have to have work somehow."

The Congolese bishop said he also hoped the encyclical would, for that reason, speak positively about encouraging development and use of renewable energy sources.

"I am convinced that for we that live in the region of a forest, the future is this renewable energy, namely solar panels," he said. "A word on [Francis'] part for us would be very important."

Ambongo spoke most at length about the unique difficulties his people face because of the abundance of natural resources in his country.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo -- located in the center of the African continent -- is said to be one of the richest countries on the globe in terms of resources, containing a third of the world's diamonds and store of cobalt. It also contains about 70 percent of the world's store of coltan, a metal used in nearly every electronic device.

"If you hear they have found resources -- diamonds, cobalt, anything -- surely, the next day there will be war," Ambongo said at a March 2 Vatican press conference.

Explaining that summary in the interview, Ambongo said natural resources from the Congo are exploited in two main ways: by large foreign companies that sign contracts with the government to extract resources and by what he called "artisanal" exploration of individuals looking to make money.

The companies, he said, "we know them all because they have signed an accord with the government, even if they are accords that are not very balanced." Artisanal exploration, he continued, "is much more dangerous for us."

"The problem is that when they take out these things ... there are intermediaries who come to buy it and take it to another intermediary, and then another intermediary, finally arriving at the international market," Ambongo said.

Armed groups, he said, follow that chain of custody to try and steal the resources for their own profit, resulting in violence. Besides the violence, he said, there is the problem that where such artisanal exploration is undertaken, it is likely also that social services, especially schools, will not be functioning.

"All the young people go to search and earn a bit of money," he said. "There is a confusion there."

Regarding foreign companies that come to the Congo to extract natural resources, Ambongo wanted to be clear that he and the episcopal conference are not opposed to all mining efforts.

"We, as the church, are not opposed to the exploration of natural resources," he said. "We are of accord: You can do it. But they must make an exploration that is transparent, an exploration that is legal and that with which the people also profit. This is our position."

Giving one example of a project that he said stirred reaction from Catholics and others, Ambongo spoke of an English energy company that had planned to drill for oil in Virunga National Park, a protected site in the east of the country that is a habitat for a number of rare species, including mountain gorillas.

"There was a reaction from all," the bishop said. "How can you explore for petroleum in an area like this that is preserved?"

Ambongo said after the outcry, the project was blocked, but he said he was not sure if the stoppage would be permanent.

Ambongo said he hoped new efforts to create an ecclesial network to protect the African equatorial forest might raise the voice of the people in such matters.

Saying he has already been in contact with bishops in four other countries -- the Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, and Madagascar -- to create such a network, Ambongo said the prelates "have to reflect together and search together the way that conforms best to our reality."

"I might say that in front of us, there are two -- excuse the word -- enemies," the bishop said. "Namely, the big companies that explore for natural resources without thinking of the population and the government that plays the game with the big companies."

"This network, for us, would be truly to raise the voice of the people in front of the companies ... and also in front of the government," he continued. "They can continue using the natural resources, but the population must also benefit -- not only the companies, not only those who have power."

Asked whether he had received threats against his life, Ambongo replied: "I am a person in danger in Congo."

After he gave interviews to French radio stations about his work, the bishop said, his government convoked a special meeting to consider what he is doing. They dealt with him, he said, "as a person that doesn't have a country."

"I am in danger," he replied again, laughing nervously but not evading the question. "This is true."

But, Ambongo said, Catholics and many others in his country are supportive of the church's voice on environmental issues. Nearly half of the 75 million people who live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo identify as Catholic.

"When we are meeting in Kinshasa [the Congolese capital], it has become a tradition that all wait for what the bishops will say about the social-political situation of the country," the bishop said.

"To give the word of the church at the social-political level doesn't deal with whether you are Catholic or not. It's for all the population," he said.

Returning to how the Vatican is supporting his work, Ambongo said the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, led by Ghanaian native Cardinal Peter Turkson, has been particularly helpful.

Under Francis, Ambongo said, that office "has become now a strong ecclesial reality for us."

"We cannot speak of evangelization without speaking of justice for the people," Ambongo said. "These things go together now. For me, this is a big, big change."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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