KINSHASA, Congo — Church leaders in Congo expressed shock after security forces fired on Catholic protesters, leaving at least eight dead and 120 people detained.
The Dec. 31 protest against rule by President Joseph Kabila was organized by the Kinshasa archdiocesan lay coordination committee. At least a dozen priests were among those detained.
"We condemn with utmost vigor this unjustified violence," the Congolese bishops' conference wrote in a statement Jan. 2.
"We similarly denounce this attack on freedom of worship, which is guaranteed in every democratic state, as well as the profanation of churches and physical aggression against the faithful and their priests."
According to the statement, the bishops were "profoundly shocked by such ignoble acts," and would demand a "serious and objective inquiry" into who was responsible.
Police used tear gas and batons against Massgoers in some of the capital's 150 parishes and violently broke up attempted marches in which protesters demanded fresh elections in the country.
A U.N. spokeswoman stated seven deaths had been recorded in Kinshasa, and another at Kananga.
The violence was condemned by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who urged Kabila's government to show restraint and "respect the rights of Congolese people to free expression."
The Catholic Church makes up around half the 67.5 million inhabitants of Congo, and the bishops have pressed Kabila to step down since his second and final term expired in 2016.
Later, a Church-brokered accord allowed the president to stay in office, alongside an opposition head of government, pending elections by the end of 2017. However, Congo's Electoral Commission said the ballot would be postponed until Dec. 23, 2018.
In November, Church observers had recorded 56 deaths and 355 arrests in half a year of opposition protests. The bishops urged Kabila to release political detainees and stick to the 2016 accord.
The rector of Kinshasa's St. Alphonse Parish, Msgr. Hugues Ndongisila, told Radio France Internationale that police had beaten and robbed Catholics who sought refuge in his church, also shooting out stained-glass windows.