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Building Peace in the Heart of Darkness
Image: Courtesy of World Relief

Violence erupted again this week in the fractured Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) when at least 20 people were killed in clashes between the government and the M23 rebel militia, breaking a truce that had held since last November.

The fighting paused Thursday (May 23) for the arrival of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the city of Goma in eastern Congo, according to the BBC. Meanwhile, the United Nations' new 3,000-person intervention brigade has also begun to arrive in Goma. The force will be allowed to offensively target and "neutralize" violent groups in the region, an unprecedented step for the UN.

Amid the clamor and negotiations, it would be easy to overlook one new movement, working to heal eastern Congo: Small groups of Congolese church leaders, including influential local women, are volunteering to solve and prevent conflicts one at a time, without fanfare.

It's a simple idea. But in a nation where political solutions are often given more attention than community solutions, World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, believes these committees, which require the inclusion of female leaders, could be a key to peace.

For the last several years, World Relief has been forming "village peace committees" in eastern Congo. World Relief has had an office in the city of Goma since 2001, and they began the committees as a pilot program intended to foster peace at the grassroots level.

"We've wrapped everything together under the theme of peace," said World Relief President Stephen Bauman. "We're still doing microfinance, we're still doing food security, we're still doing health, but we now have 22 peace committees. We're piloting a peace-building initiative through local churches and recognizing that unless the tribes come together, unless churches come together, all these other activities can sometimes be jeopardized."

The committees try to keep conflicts like family disputes, domestic conflicts and crimes from escalating into large-scale divisions that have boiled for years along tribal and ethnic lines.

"It's a failed state, to be honest — and a lot of systems, the judicial system being one of them, are not what they really should be," said Rhona Murungi, program manager of World Relief's East and Central Africa programs. "You could say that for a lot of African countries, but Congo is an extreme in this case."

Murungi said World Relief came up with the idea for the program after hearing from Congolese people for years that they could fully benefit from World Relief's full range of programs "if only we had peace."

"When we train and empower the people in authority, first of all to accept each other and sit at the same table as someone from another tribe that you've hated for forever — they in turn help to stop would-be conflicts," Murungi said.

Séverine Autesserre, an expert on Congo peace-building who teaches at Barnard College and Columbia University, said she had not heard of World Relief's initiative, but she had noticed that large-scale peace efforts in Congo often overshadowed the need for peace-building on the village level.

"Nationally- and internationally-focused conflict resolution overlooks important local dynamics that threaten order — or prevent its implementation in the first place," Autesserre wrote in an article for the journal Review of African Political Economy.

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Building Peace in the Heart of Darkness