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Denis Mukwege – Lægen i Congo der kæmper for kvinders rettigheder
Denis Mukwege på Himmelske dage i Roskilde 2022

Denis Mukwege på Himmelske dage i Roskilde 2022  

May 27, 2022

Distinguished Archbishops, Bishops, Reverend Pastors Dear guests, Ladies, and gentlemen,

Allow me, first of all, to thank Madam Secretary General and chairwoman of the ACT alliance, the Bishop of the Diocese of Roskilde and Chairman of the National Council of Danish Churches as well as the Danish Church Aid, for inviting me today.

It is a real joy for me to address you on this 2022 ecumenical festival which also commemorates the hundredth anniversary of Danish Church Aid. Happy anniversary DCA and thank you for your presence alongside the vulnerable, alongside the Congolese in recent years.

I had wanted to join you in person, but I am happy that technology gives us this virtual alternative to commune despite the obstacles encountered.

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, dear sisters, dear brothers, the word ecumenical is an invitation to encounter the other; Ecumenism is an effort to transcend our differences in order to be enriched by the experiences, the vision of the world and the achievements of the other; Ecumenism is an invitation to existence; that is to get out of one's prejudices to meet the other. On the other hand, ecumenism is not an invitation to uniformity, it does not mean selling off one's own identity, but rather enriching it by meeting others. Ecumenism finally encourages us to grasp the universality of the mission of the church. Indeed, in Matthew 24:14 Christ describes the task of his disciples:

“And this Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations.”

Christ entrusted his disciples with a common mission for a common earth. This common mission transcends all sectarian affiliations, unfortunately sectarianism has a hard tooth.

In the 1970s, my father, the first Pentecostal pastor in Bukavu, the city where I was born, initiated ecumenical meetings with the Catholic Church of Bukavu. Father Tibacx , a Belgian Catholic missionary was invited several times to preach in the church where my father was pastor. At night, this priest, who had a big heart, came to get Bibles from the bookstore that my father managed. Given the history of resentment between Protestants and Catholics, such ecumenical gatherings around Christ were a revolution. As you can imagine, this initiative was quickly opposed by extremists on both sides, those who believe that every concession is a compromise. And yet such meetings, which aim to bring people together, are useful everywhere and particularly in Central Africa, a region which has been the scene of many tragedies and human rights violations. Unfortunately, some of the tragedies that have bled the Great Lakes region of Africa have been fuelled by rivalries and hatreds among religious actors.

The Congolese tragedy began with the rubber rush in the 19th century by the regime of King Leopold II. The strong demand for rubber by the nascent automobile industry in the 19th century was the source of a violent exploitation of nature and of natives’ labour.  Several people were killed and mutilated by the Leopoldian power. The rivalries between Catholic missionaries and Protestant missionaries, the main witnesses of this Leopoldian barbarism, did not allow them to adopt a common attitude in order to denounce the flagrant violations of human rights. The missionaries who went to the Congo, the Scheutists in particular, shouted loud and clear that they were going there with a double allegiance: for King Leopold II and for God. How, then, could they oppose Leopold II and his violent regime? The rivalries between Christians, their lack of unity, the loss of sight of their universality of mission, are so many weaknesses which render the church inaudible, ineffective and which precipitate its own death.


Ladies and gentlemen, Dear brothers and sisters, the unity of the Church and Christians is an indispensable asset for the optimal defence of the rights of the weak, but on the other hand the division between Christians will always benefit the executioners of peoples. So, they will do everything they can to divide the Church and very often, unfortunately, they succeed.

The dictionary gives me several definitions of the word “festival”. On the one hand, it is a festive event. In the very difficult global context, you have to be brave to party every day. But God is not against parties, on the contrary. The other definition, which speaks to me a lot, says that a festival is a “Remarkable Demonstration”. 

From these two definitions, I can deduce this: “While making a festive event we can also demonstrate in a remarkable way:

1. Our commitment to defending the rights of the weak

2. Our denunciation of any violence against our fellow human

3. Make a call for the end of the war in Ukraine for example, our call for the advent of a more peaceful and fraternal world.

4. Our firm opposition to the use of rape as a weapon of war, as it is happening today in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Charles Sheldon wrote a book titled "What Would Jesus Do." Faced with a man who is humiliated, a woman who is harassed, another who is raped, a man whose human dignity is flouted, what would Jesus do? It is not a question of saying “what would a Catholic, a Protestant, a Baptist, a Pentecostal do” but, what would Jesus do? Our action must be dictated solely by the reason for our belonging to Christ and not by our belonging to a given religious group. As Christians, we are called to transcend our ecclesial, theological, and ethnic affiliations and to clothe ourselves only with the wombs of Christ's mercies which have no partisan color.

The word ecumenical also suggests our "common home" or "our common land." Now, whoever says, “common earth” and “common house” also alludes to common humanity. Thus, in the "common house" each misery of a member concerns all the inhabitants of the house

This is why, on the occasion of this ecumenical festival, I would like to celebrate with each of you: Our common land, our common home, our common humanity and our common responsibility towards the weak and the victims of all kinds of violence, particularly sexual violence throughout the world.

The theme of our festival this year is grace. If there is one most important and powerful word in my life, in my personal history, it is grace. I must first say I have the grace to be here with you this morning. It is a particular grace.

Brothers and sisters, I have the grace to have survived a serious infection after my birth, A sepsis when I was only a few days old. In a country where the most basic medical structures were scarce, surviving such an illness was simply a grace of God.

When my mother told me about the state I was in, all yellowy, feverish, with noisy breathing. When I became a doctor, I understood what she was talking about. I also measured how much I had the grace to survive. How many children have not had the same grace, the same luck? who did not have the grace that I had and who died at birth following a neonatal infection? And unfortunately, today in Africa, how many children die at birth as a result of these neonatal infections? To not recognize this grace to survive now is simply not to recognize the Power of God and the mission of God for our lives, the grace that He gives us, grace that we do not deserve.

Then the grace of being born into a pastoral family where very early on I witnessed my parents' dedication to both spiritual and charitable works. 

The story of my commitment to the weak has its origins in my family history deeply marked by grace. Certainly, if I had not been born in this family, I would not have taken the path that I took. Son of a pastor, I accompanied my father in his visits to the sick and it was there that he communicated to me the love for God and for humanity.

Praying for a sick child once, my father after finishing, said goodbye to the family. As I accompanied him, very touched by his compassion, the compassion he had shown for this suffering child, I was still surprised that he had not treated the child as he treats me. When I was sick myself, my father prayed and gave me medicine. However, for this poor little suffering child, he had given no medicine. Suddenly, a conversation began with my father: “Dad, why did you pray but you haven't given any medicine?” My father's answer was direct « “I am not a doctor” » I understood that there was a « gap » to be covered. I told my father, “I will then be a doctor, so you will be praying, and I will be giving the medicine”.

Dear brothers and sisters, this grace of accompanying my father allowed me to open a vision to be at the service of humanity. For me it is an unearned path, and it is only by the grace of God. My father having been an orphan of both parents at the age of 7, left alone without a brother or a sister, he had understood that everything we receive by grace, we should also give it to others without asking for something in return.

My vocation was born in this family environment very committed to the human cause. In order to follow my parents' footsteps, I chose to study medicine. With the will to participate in the eradication of infant mortality, I turned to paediatrics. During my first year of medical practice, I discovered the very high number of women who died in childbirth. My country has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

With the aim of combating maternal mortality, I had changed direction and turned to obstetrics gynaecology. After my studies in France, I spent fifteen years in the highlands of Lemera, a remote place helping thousands of women to have a safe motherhood. Unfortunately, in 1996, an unjust war was imposed on the Congolese. With the blessing of the international community, neighbouring countries attacked Congo, supposedly to push the genocidaires away from the Congolese border. 25 years later, it is hard to say but the bloodshed of the population is still ongoing. No earlier than yesterday, the entire population of Goma was in turmoil because of a new aggression of the Congo; causing enormous suffering for the population.

That first war had brought a new pathology that I had not treated before, having served as an obstetrician-gynaecologist in the region for 15 years, which I had called: rape with extreme violence, a new pathology.

The belligerents attack the female body and particularly her genitals, by introducing blunt and sharp objects into them, even destroying the genitals with acid products or live ammunition. The first patient I treated at Panzi Hospital had her entire genitalia destroyed by a gunshot.

What was initially considered to be the act of an isolated madman will turn out a few weeks later to be planned and systematic rapes.

We ourselves have been victims of attacks several times. The last attack, where I had lost a loved one who was killed trying to protect me, pushed me today to live cloistered in the hospital to continue my work and try to obtain a minimum of security. And for me, the fact that I am alive today is simply an effect of the grace of God. Because when armed men shoot a few meters from you and I am narrowly saved by someone who gave his life to protect me, what do I deserve? Nothing at all, but the grace of God is enough for me.

The Lutheran Reformation emphasized the theology of grace. (Sola Grace). This theology of grace in the 16th century was a response to the excesses of the theology of merit.

What unites all Protestants, indeed all Christians, is our attachment to the theology of grace: “we are saved only by grace through faith.” »

It is obvious that the theology of grace frees man from all guilt that would come from his vain attempt to want to merit salvation by deeds. Grace is therefore good news, excellent news. You have to be able to experience it.

However, a bad understanding of grace which makes man a spectator and not an actor of salvation, a simple passive beneficiary who must do nothing in return, does this not risk exonerating man from his vocation to act to change the world?

The apostle Paul responds to this drift by showing that grace, far from demobilizing, has the vocation of mobilizing to the practice of good deeds. In other words, he who has received freely is called to give freely. The church that has received much is called to give much.  The prophetic vocation is inscribed in the genes of the church, if it dies, the church, as willed by God, is called inexorably to die as well.

This mission of the church is two-headed, on the one hand, it is a prophetic mission to enlighten the people and on the other hand, it consists in denouncing evil.

But what is the Church doing today? Where is the church when the rights of the weak are violated? Where is the Church? What does the church say in these great debates about the latest tragedies concerning Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of Congo? Where is the Church?

The Church which loses its prophetic vocation, it becomes inaudible and therefore less useful like salt which has lost its taste. 

Ladies and gentlemen, by definition the church constitutes the body of Christ called to be the lieutenant of Christ on earth. It must therefore, without any ambiguity, be the hand, the mouth, and the leg of Christ:

-His hand to raise up the nations that are languishing and suffocating under the weight of other unscrupulous predatory nations,

-His mouth to defend, around the world, the voiceless who have been muzzled by international diplomacy of double standards in the service of the strongest.

-His legs to go to the aid of those who are unjustly held captive because of their political opinions.

If the Church wants to be the Kingdom of God, it must be present where humanity suffers, it must act as Christ's lieutenant on earth, defending justice and truth.

Whenever the right of man or of a nation is violated, the church must be the first to show solidarity. It must agree to transcend its traditions, its doctrines, its privileges to weep with those who weep and suffer with those who suffer.

Unfortunately, for fear of reprisals or by collusion with the existing powers, the church has often turned a blind eye to human rights abuses.

By doing so, we have lost the sense of our calling, we have betrayed God and we have betrayed his people.

If we are of Christ, we have no choice but to side with the weak, to side with the wounded, to welcome refugees and all victims of violence, including victims of sexual violence.

The war that has been raging in the Congo for more than 25 years has caused several million deaths. This war is bogged down, and the Congolese dead no longer move anyone.

After a few months of refuge in Kenya in 1996, we quickly returned to the country. This barbaric war used the female body as a battlefield. Rapes with extreme violence have affected women, old people, young girls, and babies. The aim pursued was to traumatize the population in order to dominate and humiliate it. In fact, to simply destroying the social fabric, and even destroying the spirituality of the population.

In our Panzi Hospital, now 23 years old, we have treated more than 70,000 women. Some of them underwent up to more than 9 operations on their lower digestive tract, urinary tract, and genital tract. Many Victims of Sexual Violence have been infected with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. A specific program takes care of them and many of them do well. What touches us deeply is to see that the objective of their aggressors, of their executioners was to destroy them spiritually, physically, morally, psychologically. But with this support, these women manage to stand up and have a new direction for their lives.

Our action at Panzi is based on four pillars: a psychological pillar, a medical pillar, a socio-economic pillar, and a legal pillar. And all these pillars are held together by a spiritual life that animates the hospital.

Our first response to this barbarism is the psychological care of women victims of sexual violence. During this first stage, our psychologists provide them with the necessary care in order to prepare them to face major surgical interventions and the consequences that follow.

The second stage consists of the surgical -medical treatment. The third step consists in ensuring these Victims of Sexual Violence an economic self-sufficiency through microcredits or income-generating activities.

The fourth step is legal; to avoid impunity, and above all to give moral and psychological assurance, some of these women who recognize their executioners are helped in the legal proceedings to demand justice. The objective of demanding justice for these women is not for revenge, nor is it simply for their executioners to be repressed, but they want to be recognized as victims, they want society to recognize them in order to integrate them.

Ladies and gentlemen

The grace to live, the grace to possess, the grace to be free, is an urgent invitation to act for life, for sharing and for the freedom of our fellow human. This is what the Apostle Paul expresses to the Corinthians:

“Since we work with God, we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain.” (2 Corinth 6:1)

The privilege of being liberated by grace is not an invitation to complacency, nor to the exaltation of a religious tradition. It is rather an obligation to work for the liberation and emancipation of those who, in the world, are victims of hatred and injustice; to work to liberate women victims of sexual violence, women who are sex slaves, women who are sold on the market as objects, in our century. Our freedom by grace gives us responsibility over those whose basic rights are violated.

Grace being a collective gift, it cannot flourish individually. Men can enjoy grace only if all have a share in it. Let us not receive God's grace in vain, let us work so that everyone can have access to it.