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`Peacemaker' labors amid danger in ex-Zaire

The Rev. Mbaya Tshiakany Tshiabantu bears the designation "International Peacemaker" as he visits Presbyterian congregations in the United States, including several this past week in Utah.

It's more than a title for the man who once stood on a bridge, alone, after government leaders chickened out, and asked rebel leaders to leave his village intact and in peace. It's a philosophy carved from the wreckage of tribal war, political plundering, poverty, devastation and death.And unshakable faith in God.

He's seen leaders come and go in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), where he is both a pastor and the legal representative of the Presbyterian Community for the East Kasai Region. He's seen the mineral-rich country plundered of its wealth and self-respect. He couldn't begin to count the number of those who died in a series of conflicts over the past decade.

The day his philosophy coalesced, the people in his town had selected him to go with local leaders to plead with the rebels to leave them alone. The local leaders said since he was a minister, used to speaking, he could give the speech. A few minutes later, as he was pondering what to say, they "faded back," leaving him to face the rebels basically alone.

God would be with him, he thought. Or he would soon be with God. It was acceptable.

He's one of 10 "Peacemakers" that the Presbyterian Church recently brought to the United States. Each was chosen for personal expertise and experience. They gathered together to share their stories and went through an orientation, then were sent to different parts of the country to visit local churches. He will visit six different areas, including California, Texas and Utah before he goes back to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in November. In January, he will return to teach for six months at a seminary in Chicago.

The Rev. Tshiabantu was raised in a Presbyterian family and earned his doctorate in theology in Jerusalem. He was ordained a minister in 1986 and since 1990 has been a Hebrew Bible professor at a college in Ndesha, where he lives with wife Monique and their six children.

In a country torn by battles, big and small, he learned that there's a place for religious leaders to get involved, he told the Deseret News Monday. His church is strong in the DRC, he said. He and other religious leaders have had a role in trying to make smooth the transition of power from ousted Mobutu Sese Seko (the dictator who allegedly stripped the land of its riches and salted the money away in personal accounts overseas) to rebel leader Laurent Kabila, who officially took power May 29.

Kabila promises free elections in a couple of years and religious leaders will have a role in trying to see that he keeps that vow, according to the Rev. Tshiabantu. They've already intervened in four tribal conflicts. In fact, "Those in power are turning back to the churches, saying, `How can you help? What can you do?"'

The answer is, quite a bit. The DRC is about 80 percent Christian, he said, lead by the Catholic Church and then by a coalition of 62 denominations of Protestants. About 1 percent of DRC is Greek Orthodox, slightly fewer than that Muslim. An independent African church, Kimbanguist, was started by a former Baptist and is similar in belief to Protestantism. The rest are animists, but they are a very small minority.

It's been a very trying decade or so for his country, which is one-third the size of the United States and has 41 million people. They are excruciatingly poor, "third from the bottom for the whole world," with an annual income of $225 a household. That's almost inconceivable, considering the rich mineral deposits and the diamonds in the nearby mines. But Mobutu and his army took the proceeds from the riches for their own gain. The Rev. Tshiabantu (known to his friends as Rev. Mbaya) also blames the former dictator for many of the tribal conflicts, saying he provoked them so he could declare an emergency and send the military into regions.

Kabila or anyone who succeeds him will face a daunting task to rebuild.

"People have learned fear. My country is so broken," he said, adding the both the economy and morale are poor.

Displaced soldiers from Mobutu's army pose a threat; they have become lawless as they try to gather resources to get back to power. Many are still hiding out, striking like bandits.

Once again, the churches have joined the citizens in seeking solutions. It took some doing, but they persuaded the government to let them fly displaced soldiers to the capital, rather than letting them work their way back by way of vulnerable villages. The Diamond Mining Company donated a plane for the effort.

"In my country, we have peace now," the Rev. Tshiabantu said. "There is no more fighting, but there is certain insecurity."

Without church intervention, the bloodshed, past and present, would be much greater, he maintains. "If we weren't there teaching peaceful ways of solving problems, there would be bloodshed because the population is angry at the regime."

The greatest gift, he said, has been the support and prayers of other Christians. "When you are in a situation, receiving a card from someone saying `I know' is really energizing."