Religion: Mobutu as Messiah

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It sounded like something out of Stalin's Russia or Communist China: a head of government threatening to shut down Roman Catholic churches in his nation. But that warning comes this month from Zaïre's President Mobutu Sese Seko, a baptized Catholic whose nation has the largest Christian population in Africa. Mobutu says he will close any church whose priest does not stick to spiritual matters and keep silent on public issues, and there is little reason to doubt that he means it. His words follow some very specific works.

Since Mobutu decreed his African "authenticity" campaign three years ago, Zaïre's Christians have suffered increasingly harsh restrictions. The government not only banned all religious youth organizations but even church periodicals and radio programs—a severe handicap in a nation with the travel and communications problems of far-flung Zaïre. The government plans to shut down the three important seminaries at the national university in Kinshasa at the end of the school year. It has also seized control of elementary and secondary schools—most of which are church-run—and prohibited them from teaching religion classes. The time is being filled with courses on Mobutuism.

Mobutu explains: "The walls of such schools are decorated with photographs of Pope Paul and crosses, while they do not have photographs of the President. Zaïre children must first know of the man who sacrifices night and day for their happiness."

While Zaïre's 6.5 million Protestants are affected, the main target of Mobutu's campaign is the large and pervasive Roman Catholic Church, 9.6 million strong. Catholicism has temporal as well as spiritual power (besides the schools, priests and nuns run many hospitals and social services) and it is the only force in the nation tied to a non-Zaïrean authority, the Papacy. Catholic independence clashes with Mobutu's effort to unify the nation by cultivating a semi-religious devotion to himself and his government. Some observers trace his fear of Catholic social influence to 1970, when the high-living Mobutu attended a Mass at which Joseph Cardinal Malula preached that Zaïre's ruling class was enriching itself and ignoring the people's misery. His new threat to close churches followed a protest from Zaïre's bishops, not only against the end of religion classes but against any hint that salvation comes through Mobutu rather than Jesus Christ.

New Cult. In building his new cult, Mobutu has gone so far as to ban Christmas as a national holiday. Some followers even printed hymns in newspapers that substituted Mobutu's name for that of Jesus Christ. In December the state press agency announced that the nation's single political party "must henceforth be considered as a church, and its founder a messiah." Messiah or no, the president himself last month modestly rejected the ultimate title; "Mobutu does not think he is God."