Police in the Democratic Republic of Congo allegedly opened fire and deployed tear gas inside churches on Sunday, killing at least eight Christians, and arrested more than 100 people after Christians carrying Bibles and crucifixes joined protests against the rule of President Joseph Kabila.
Eighty-two people, including priests, were taken into custody in Kinshasa, while 41 people were arrested in the rest of the vast African nation, after protests were held against President Kabila's refusal to step down from power, AFP reported, noting that a policeman was among those killed.
The government had banned the protests under the pretext that it didn't have the capacity to police them, and had shut down mobile phone text message and data signals for "state security" reasons, according to The Times.
Kabila, 46, has been president of the Catholic-majority country since his father Lauren was assassinated in 2001.
The president had earlier said he would step down after the electoral roll was updated, and then claimed that the election won't be possible due to security and financial reasons. He had agreed on a church-brokered deal for a transitional government and elections in 2017.
Catholic churches and activists had called for peaceful protests to mark a year since the accord was signed to set a new election date, free political prisoners and ease tensions, according to France 24.
On Sunday morning, police officers dispersed worshipers from a mass in the parish of St. Michael's in central Kinshasa, a witness was quoted as saying. "While we were praying, the soldiers and the police entered the church compound and fired tear gas at the church."
Another parishioner stated, "People fell, first-aiders are resuscitating old ladies who have fallen," and added that the priest carried on saying mass.
At the Notre-Dame of Congo Cathedral in Gombe, north Kinshasa, security forces also fired tear gas as opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi arrived. The parish priest asked worshipers to "return to their homes in peace because there is a heavy presence of soldiers and police ready to fire."
In June, the Catholic Church reported that as many as 3,383 people had been slaughtered in violence in the central Kasai region, stemming from the conflict between anti-government militia and the government's army.
The church noted at the time that the army had destroyed 10 villages in its attempts to put down the insurrection. The anti-government militia, on the other hand, had killed hundreds of people, destroyed four villages and attacked church property.
The conflict flared up in mid–2016 when tribal chieftain Kamwina Nsapu in Kasai called for an insurgency after the government refused to recognize his authority in the province. Nsapu was killed in an August 2016 security forces raid, which prompted his followers to start a campaign to avenge his death, which has resulted in a war with the government.
The Catholic Church's adherents account for close to 50 percent of the population in the country.