Frontline Kinshasa: Turbulent priest is not to be silenced

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IN A grassy field on the banks of the Congo river, pastor Theodore Ngoy gazed out across hundreds of hopeful faces and preached to the soul of a troubled nation. Worship not the power and authority of human government, he told his followers. Idolise only the word of God or Congo will again go astray down the path of Mobutu Sese Seko, the recently overthrown president. It had become a common theme at pastor Ngoy's riverside Church of Gombe, one that had provoked repeated threats against church workers. Then secret police arrested Ngoy at a church seminar in December.

A military court deemed his words insults to the president and threats to state security. He spent nearly seven months at the capital Kinshasa's Makala prison, most of it crammed in a filthy 15-foot square cell with 29 other men.

Last month's war in Congo, President Laurent Kabila would have the world believe, resulted from an abrupt, unprovoked foreign invasion on 2 August. Now a free man, Ngoy argues that any peace talks are doomed to fail unless they address the quieter, darker war Kabila has been waging since seizing power 15 months ago.

"Kabila has met all the conditions to be overthrown. He destroyed the confidence people had in him and disappointed the people who helped him win the war," Ngoy explained at a busy hotel cafe, confidently ignoring the secret police nearby.

Security services have proliferated under Kabila, including the unit of the army known as Military Detection of Anti-Motherland Agents.Arthur Ngoma, head of the Forces of the Future party and now a lead negotiator for the rebels, was arrested for holding a meeting in a Kinshasa hotel. He, his followers, and journalists were stripped and beaten by police. The editor of three local newspapers was arrested for supposedly being an agent of the United Nations commission of inquiry into human rights abuses.

Asked, at a press conference, whether his cabinet would be open to the opposition, Kabila said he "did not know whether there was an opposition to which we have to open ourselves".

What incensed Ngoy most was what he described as a campaign of idolatry. "As they did during Mobutu's reign, they started singing praises of Kabila on television," he said.

Kabila adopted the title Mzee, "the wise man" in Swahili, and erected huge images of himself at main intersections and along boulevards in Kinshasa. In May, the government held a contest to see who could write the best song about Congo. Not surprisingly, the entries fawned over Kabila.

Highly respected in Kinshasa, Ngoy has long concerned himself with political and religious affairs, arguing that modern democracies take separation of church and state too far. Contending with iniquitous rule is a major biblical theme that Ngoy finds is rich in parallels for Congo. "You cannot talk of the Bible without talking about politics. God effectively said to Moses if you want to keep this country for a long time you must respect human rights," he said.

Ngoy's conviction led him to write public letters to Mobutu, urging him to step down and seek forgiveness. When Kabila arrived, Ngoy continued preaching and writing letters published in the local press.

Ngoy was first arrested on 6 December but released for a couple of days when Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, visited Kinshasa. After she departed, Ngoy was arrested again on 10 December. He was released on 2 July after Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and some 2,000 international pastors all agitated for his release.

Today Ngoy is battling to regain his job at the central bank, from which he was suspended when he was arrested. He said he is fighting for the job as a matter of principle but hopes, if he wins, to resign and spend his time preaching and establishing an organisation to bring food, clothes and free legal help to prisoners.

"They told me when I was released that I should keep silent. 'When you speak you are dangerous,' they said. I cannot stop talking. I am a trustworthy pastor and I should tell the truth. If I keep silent I am no longer a pastor."

Ngoy believes that the Congolese people have rallied around Kabila in the current crisis, despite his failures. "There has never been a Congolese president who has been supported the way Kabila is now. Not even Patrice Lumumba. The people of Congo do regard Kabila as a nationalist. That is why they forgive him everything, including his mistakes," he said.

"But when the war will finish, the problems relating to human rights, relating to democracy, to the constitutional and judicial framework will be questioned again. If he has the same behaviour as before, the same people will rebel against him, I assure you," he said.