Mons. Christophe Munzihirwa. A witness and a prophet

On 23 October 1996, Bukavu, he was captured by the forces of the AFDL (Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo) of Laurent Kabila. The rebels killed him. The streets were deserted, the people were holed up in their homes and corpses lay in the streets of the city.

Mgr. Christophe Munzihirwa was born in 1926 in Lukumbo a small village in Kivu, in present-time Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A parish priest in the cathedral of Bukavu in the early 1960s, in 1963 he joins the Jesuits and moves to Belgium in order to study Social science and economy at the university of Leuven. He comes back to Congo in 1969 and his ministry soon becomes that of “the man for difficult situations”.

A chaplain at the University of Kinshasa, when Mobutu in 1971 orders all the students and seminarians to serve in the army for two years he asks to be also enlisted and joins the army as a sergeant. From 1980 to 1986 he is the provincial of the Jesuits in Central Africa (Rwanda, Congo, Burundi).

On 9 November 1986 he is ordained as bishop and sent to Kosongo as coadjutor to Mgr. Timothée Pirigisha. From the early 90s he is the Apostolic Vicar of Bukavu, becoming the Archbishop in 1994. In those difficult years for Congo, he participates with compassion to the tragedy of the people in the region of the Great Lakes, as a person who really loves his neighbor.

After the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Mgr. Munzihiwa becomes a true advocate of the thousands of Hutu refugees who flooded his diocese. He firmly believed that only few had committed atrocities against the Tutsis and that most of them were, instead, innocent victims. He spoke with an evangelic voice, asking for reconciliation beyond ethnicity.

“In these days when mass graves are still dug, where misery and diseases can be found for several thousand kilometers, on the road and the paths, in the fields, we are disconcerted by Christ’s cry from the cross: “Father, forgive them”. God’s mercy, which breaks the chain of revenge, calls for a change in everybody, whatever faction he belongs to. It is the only thing capable of breaking once and for all the infernal spiral of revenge”.

Many compared him to Oscar Romero, bishop and martyr El Salvador. In fact, when Munzihirwa was a bishop in Kasongo and Mobutu ordered to loot the city, believing that some rebel soldiers found shelter there, the bishop said: “I see soldiers before me, I see the colonel. Stop oppressing the people. I ask you, I order you: stop!” The commander wanted to arrest him and he fearlessly said: “I am ready, arrest me”.

His commitment, his passion and his love for the people turned him into a problem for those in power, due to his outright opposition to every form of violence and also for his absolute dedication to others and his permanent search for the truth.

In Bukavu, those were days of death and anguish. The military and civilian authorities of the eastern Kivu region, the last remnants of Mobutu Sese Seko’s dictatorship left the city in the hand of Rwandan soldiers who killed whoever was in sight. The perpetrators were members of the Rwandan Tutsi minority, who accused Mobutu of giving shelter to several thousand militiamen among the hutu refugees.

On 23 October 1996, Mgr. Munzihirwa is savagely murdered in his town. His body was found in a small squared named Nyawera. The rebels had killed all those who were passing by, both on foot and in their car.

Exactly one week earlier, after a declaration on the real conditions of the region and the betrayal of the Congolese authorities, the Archbishop said: “Today I’ve forfeited my life. I’ve signed my death sentence”. His martyrdom was not sudden but the result of a personal itinerary, of a total faith in his Lord, of a constant and hard search, of a testimony which resulted in giving his life. In fact, he said that a Christian must bear witness of his faith, he must “give” even when facing “the most hopeless human tragedies, because there is not a moment in which the Gospel can be put aside. It is the only way in which the life of a Christian can become a sign of hope”.

Denis Mukwege, the Congolese doctor who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 said  “24 years have passed without any investigation, without any trial. 24 years of complicit silence before the crimes in the Republic of Congo”. The process of beatification of the martyred archbishop is under way; the diocesan step of the process ended exactly two year ago. (B.M.)