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An official document appeared on social media this past weekend that triggered alarm among Catholics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, pictured in Paris, France, in 2019. François-Régis Salefran via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).


It was a letter dated April 27 and signed by Firmin Mvonde Mambu, the attorney general at the country’s court of cassation

Its subject was the allegedly “seditious behavior” of Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, who is known to Catholics worldwide for leading African criticism of Fiducia supplicans, the Vatican’s declaration on same-sex blessings. 

The letter, which ordered the opening of an investigation into the outspoken Archbishop of Kinshasa, seemed to mark a significant escalation in tensions between Church and state in a nation with one of the world’s largest Catholic populations. 

But what exactly is happening? What’s the context? How are people reacting? And what’s likely to happen next? 

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What’s happening?

The letter, addressed to the prosecutor of Kinshasa’s Matete district, accused Ambongo of issuing “a constant stream of seditious remarks made during press briefings, interviews, and other sermons” as war rages in the mineral-rich east of the Central African nation.

These comments, the letter claimed, were “likely to discourage the soldiers of the republic’s armed forces who are fighting at the front, but also inciting the mistreatment by rebels and other invaders of local populations already battered by so many years of destabilization.”

Mvonde Mambu said that the cardinal — a 64-year-old member of the Capuchin order who has led the Kinshasa archdiocese since 2018 — had recently “declined” an invitation to visit the attorney general’s office.

He ordered the local prosecutor to open an investigation into the prelate, who, he claimed, “deliberately violates people’s consciences and seems to find pleasure in these false rumors and other incitements of the population to revolt against established institutions and acts against human lives.”

The letter told the prosecutor that failure to open a probe “would be considered as complicity in the above-mentioned reprehensible acts” and ordered him to keep the attorney general informed “in real time” about the investigation’s progress.

What’s the context?

At the end of 2023, the incumbent Félix Tshisekedi was re-elected as president of the  Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), gaining around 73% of the vote, according to official figures. His closest rival, Moïse Katumbi, was said to have gained a mere 18%.

At the start of 2024, the Congolese bishops’ conference and the Church of Christ in Congo, a Protestant umbrella body, urged the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission to investigate alleged electoral irregularities.

Ambongo himself described the election as a “gigantic, organized mess.”

In February, the rebel military group M23 — which Tshisekedi says is backed by neighboring Rwanda — made further advances in the eastern Congo region, prompting fears of a new humanitarian crisis.

At the Easter Vigil in March, Ambongo preached a thunderous homily in which he criticized the authorities for failing to stabilize the east. He likened the DRC to a “seriously ill person who is almost in a comatose state.”

Then in April, officials at N’djili International Airport, which serves the capital, denied Ambongo access to the VIP lounge. (Pope Francis had touched down at the same airport in January 2023, at the start of a four-day visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

In an April 14 statement, the Kinshasa archdiocese accused airport staff of subjecting the cardinal to “degrading treatment.” 

“As you know, the Cardinal Metropolitan Archbishop of Kinshasa is a member of the C9, the Council of Cardinals assisting the Holy Father, Pope Francis, in the project of reforming the Church,” it said. 

“It was for this mission that he traveled. Also, as a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, he holds a diplomatic passport. But why is he now being denied this status, which has always been accorded to all cardinals, even internationally?”

To be clear, Church officials weren’t worried that the cardinal had been refused access to comfy couches or complimentary cashew nuts. Their concern was that obliging Ambongo to go through the more public areas of the airport could have compromised his security.

On April 18, the Vatican-based news agency Agenzia Fides published an interview with the cardinal, in which he discussed the crisis in the east. The original text quoted Ambongo as saying that the government in Kinshasa had “distributed additional weapons to various armed groups such as the Wazalendo and also to some members of the Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).”

The Wazalendo is a coalition of groups fighting against the M23 rebels, while the FLDR is a Rwandan rebel group consisting of ethnic Hutus. 

The quotation reportedly ignited controversy in the DRC, with critics accusing the cardinal of echoing claims made by Rwandan President Paul Kagame. 

On April 22, Agenzia Fides published a clarification. Addressing the “heated” reaction to the interview, the agency noted that the cardinal had been “accused of blaming the civil authorities of his country by adopting ‘de facto’ theses and arguments used against them by leaders of other nations currently in conflict with the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

The agency conceded that the original article had failed to convey “certain nuances that emerged during the interview.” 

“Inaccuracies (now corrected) crept into the transition from the original version of the interview (which took place in Italian) to translations into other languages, leaving room for misinterpretation,” said Fides, which publishes reports in seven languages.

The remark about the FLDR and Wazalendo was not a quotation from the cardinal, it said.

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How are people reacting?

The attorney general’s April 27 letter was sharply criticized by opposition figures.

Moïse Katumbi, who came second in the 2023 presidential election, expressed “deep indignation” at the threat of legal proceedings.

“This cardinal and Metropolitan Archbishop of Kinshasa does nothing except speak out on behalf of the Congolese people, who are enduring endless atrocious suffering,” he said in an April 29 post on

Referring to two of Ambongo’s predecessors as archbishop of Kinshasa, he added: “This intolerable attack on the Catholic Church recalls the dark hours of our country’s tragic history, marked by authoritarian regimes that unscrupulously attacked Cardinals Joseph Malula and Laurent Monsengwo, staunch defenders of truth, justice, and good governance.” 

“Today, Cardinal Ambongo is facing the same repression, perpetrated by a power that fears truth and transparency. But we have always observed that regimes that attack the Church and its dignitaries fail miserably. It is therefore better to refrain from it.”

Martin Fayulu, who controversially lost the 2018 presidential election to Tshisekedi, described the step as “the last straw.”

“The cardinal’s words, as part of his prophetic mission, are shared and accepted by the majority of Congolese,” he wrote on social media April 29. “I call on the vigilance of all Congolese and I ask them to be ready to thwart this provocative action aimed at reducing everyone to silence and consolidating the current dictatorship.”

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning physician Denis Mukwege said he was scandalized by the letter.

Mukwege, who provides treatment to women subjected to sexual violence in eastern Congo, argued that the move “illustrates the political instrumentalization of the judiciary and the dictatorial drift of a regime incapable of managing the country and restoring security.”

Jean-Pierre Bodjoko, S.J., a Rome-based journalist and writer, suggested that the Church should avoid a knee-jerk reaction to the letter.

He said in an April 28 post that the attorney general’s action could breach the Framework Agreement between the Holy See and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which came into force in 2020.

He highlighted Article 8 of the agreement, which requires the judicial authorities to inform the Holy See in advance of any actions taken against bishops.

What’s next?

Congolese Catholics are taking a wait-and-see approach to the latest development.

The letter may be principally intended as a warning shot, aimed at convincing Ambongo to tone down his criticisms of the political establishment. Indeed, there are even doubts about its authenticity in some quarters of the Church.

But it could be more serious: a sign that the establishment is committed to enlisting the judiciary in an attempt to stifle the cardinal’s voice.

Whether the legal threat is real or largely rhetorical should become clearer in the coming days.

At the time of writing, Ambongo had offered no public reaction. His closest advisers were said to be discussing the best response.

The Holy See had also made no public response at press time. The apostolic nunciature, the Vatican embassy in Kinshasa, is currently in a period of transition. The post of apostolic nuncio, vacant since June 2023, was only filled earlier this month with the appointment of Archbishop Mitja Leskovar. 

Leskovar is currently saying his farewells in Iraq, where he has served as nuncio since 2020, before he takes up his new post. His experience of turbulent Church-state relations in Iraq will no doubt serve him well in Kinshasa.

The legal threat presents a stern test for Cardinal Ambongo and the Holy See.

But it is also a test for the DRC’s political class. Will the public accept the claim that the cardinal is a dangerously subversive force at a time of national peril? Or will it see Ambongo as a man who accurately describes the forces that shape their daily lives?

The answers may influence what happens next.

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