A Catholic priest kidnapped by armed men in the volatile region of North Kivu, in eastern DRC, has been released.

Fr. Robert Masinda from the parish of Bingo, in Beni, was kidnapped on Monday 22 January, along with five others, though four were soon released.

According to Mgr. Laurent Sondirya, Vicar General of the diocese of Butembo-Beni, Fr. Masinda has also now been freed, as Catholic news agency Fides reports.

“I have not seen him yet but he should be here soon, along with the other person who was detained with him,” said Mgr. Sondirya. “We do not know who the kidnappers are. Unfortunately, given the situation of poverty of a large part of the population, some people resort to kidnappings to easily obtain some money.”

Numerous armed groups, including the radical Islamic group Muslim Defense International, formerly known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADF), operate in eastern DRC.

The armed groups have been responsible for widespread violence, including murder, rape, looting and kidnapping. Catholic clerics have not been spared.

On July 2017, two priests, Fr. Charles Kipasa and Fr. Jean Pierre Akilimali, were kidnapped by unknown armed men in their parish of Bunyuka, on the outskirts of Butembo.

In October 2012, three other priests – Jean-Pierre Ndulani, Anselme Wasikundi and Edmond Bamutute – were abducted in their parish of Notre-Dame des Pauvres in Mbau, 22km from Beni. They are still missing.

People affected by violence in eastern DRC, waiting for relief aid. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

The latest kidnapping of Fr. Masinda took place amidst a tense political and social atmosphere in the country, as demonstrations organised by the Catholic laity on New Year’s Eve were repressed by security forces.

The violence has been condemned by Human Rights Watch, among others.

“The shooting, beating and arbitrary arrest of peaceful churchgoers by Congolese security forces violated the rights to freedom of worship, expression, and peaceful assembly,” Human Rights Watch said.

“Congolese security forces hit a new low by firing into church grounds to disrupt peaceful services and processions,” said Ida Sawyer, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop banning demonstrations and leave worshipers alone.”

The demonstrators want to exert pressure on President Joseph Kabila, whose mandate expired on 31 December 2016, to respect the Catholic Church-mediated political agreement signed in late 2016.

The agreement called for presidential elections by the end of 2017 and measures to ease political tensions.

These commitments have “largely been ignored”, however, as President Kabila has held on to power through “repression and violence”, according to Human Rights Watch.