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May 23, 2010

Congo bishop seeks support for mineral bill

By Michelle Martin

ASSISTANT EDITOR

Bishop Nicolas Djomo, president of the Catholic bishops’ conference of the Democratic Republic of Congo, visited Chicago May 6 in hopes of getting more support from Cardinal George for legislation that would help reduce violence in the eastern part of his country.

Cardinal George is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“They can take the message to all the bishops, and they can tell all their parishes and they can ask Catholics to talk to their people in Congress,” said Djomo, bishop of the Tshumbe Diocese.

Congo is home to about 30 million Catholics — about half its population — and about 65 percent of the world’s reserves of a mineral called columbite-tantalite (known as coltan), which is used in cell phones and other small electronic devices.

A drop of blood

While most of the coltan is in eastern Congo, the majority of it is exported from surrounding countries, smuggled out of eastern Congo by the warring factions that have terrorized the people who live there for years, including militias from nearby Rwanda and Burundi.

The fighting continues in that region despite the formal end of the Congolese civil war, which raged from 1998 to 2003. More than 5 million people have been killed in the country since 1996.

The problem, Bishop Djomo said, is simple. The militias terrorize the local population in order to get access to the mineral reserves, which they smuggle out of Congo and sell to multinational corporations. Then they use the money they get to buy more weapons, which they use to terrorize the local population, in an ongoing cycle.

“You could say every cell phone sold in the U.S. has a drop of African blood,” he said.

Bills in Congress

Now Catholic Relief Services —the international development agency of the USCCB — and the U.S. bishops’ conference have given their support to the Senate’s Congo Conflict Minerals Act, which is sponsored by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), and the House of Representatives’Conflict Minerals Trade Act, which is sponsored by Rep. James McDermott (DWash.)

The bills direct the U.S. Department of State to investigate the natural resource financing of illegal armed groups, provide guidance to businesses on tracking their supply chains, design a strategy to assist regional governments to improve mineral trade transparency, assist the Democratic Republic of Congo to improve mineral management and export, and impose punitive measures for commercial activities that support illegal armed groups.

If passed, they also would require companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange to disclose in annual Securities and Exchange Commission reports the country of origin of coltan, tin and tungsten, and if the country of origin is the DRC or a bordering country, also to disclose the mine of origin; and promote more humanitarian and development assistance for affected communities in the DRC.

Eventually, they could lead to the marketing of “conflict mineralfree” phones and other devices, similar to the campaign to sell conflict- free diamonds, the bishop said.

While the USCCB has already announced its support of the bill, Bishop Djomo is hoping that more vocal support will lead more Catholics to educate themselves about the issue and add their voices to those calling for the bill to be passed.

After meeting with Cardinal George, Bishop Djomo said he also invited the cardinal to visit Congo.

More challenges

In addition to the violence in eastern Congo, Bishop Djomo said the church in his country is beset by the proselytization efforts of some fundamentalist Protestant sects, many from the United States, which lure people away from the Catholic Church by promising them material gain — promises they can’t fulfill.