Church celebrates Congo dissident’s release

A political dissident who led a prison revival is now free in his native Democratic Republic of Congo after 16 months behind bars — the past four in a military prison.

Vano Kalembe Kiboko — a United Methodist lay evangelist, businessman and former congressman in Congo — was detained on what the watchdog group Human Rights Watch called “trumped-up charges.”

That all changed May 5, when authorities released Kiboko.  

For his sister — the Rev. J. Kabamba Kiboko, a member of the Texas Conference who also serves on the Judicial Council, The United Methodist Church’s top court — his 492 days in prison made her feel like both of them were in a deep pit.

“I felt trapped, but I was in prayer, and that’s where he and I were together, strong together,” she told United Methodist News Service. “I felt when he was low and I could feel it when God was comforting him. God was comforting me, too.”

A TROUBLED COUNTRY

Violence has long afflicted the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country as big as Western Europe in mineral-rich central Africa. The nation suffered savage colonial rule under King Leopold II of Belgium, decades of deadly dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko, and most recently years of brutal war in which rebel groups and armies from multiple African countries fought for Congolese land. That five-year conflict claimed at least 6 million lives.

President Joseph Kabila took office in 2001 after the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila.

The president’s leadership has brought some stability to the country, wrote Kenneth Roth and Ida Sawyer of Human Rights Watch after meeting the president last summer. Nevertheless, they and other human-rights observers have feared the 2016 presidential election would be canceled and the constitution changed so Kabila could remain in leadership.

More than 40 people died in January 2015 when security forces suppressed protests against delaying the 2016 presidential election. Since then, other activists have been arrested and held in detention,

This past week, Moise Katumbi — the president of a popular football club and former governor of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s wealthiest region — announced that he would run in the presidential election.

But it is still uncertain whether elections will go forward in November. Congo’s electoral commission in January said it would take at least 13 months to update voter lists.

It is in this context that Vano Kiboko has been behind bars and now freed.

The Rev. Kiboko believes she and her brother experienced the same pain during the imprisonment. “We are connected,” she explained. “You would think that we are twins, but we are not. I feel his pain and he feels mine.”

Her brother’s release, she said, occurred after he pointed out mistakes in the judgment against him to a judge. “He fought and he won,” she added.

She has since encouraged her brother to secure visas to visit his doctors in the United States, Belgium and South Africa. “Spiritually, he’s very strong… but his health is not good,” she said, noting that he thinks he may have been exposed to a slow poison while in prison.

South Congo Area Bishop Kainda Katembo, who appointed Vano Kiboko a lay evangelist in July 2014, said he and other United Methodists “thank God he has been released.”

“There have been many, many prayers from the church,” he said.

Arrest and revival

Vano Kiboko was arrested Dec. 29, 2014 by the country’s secret service. His arrest came after he publicly denounced the Dec. 8 shooting of a woman, who was engaged in a nonviolent protest. During the same press conference, Kiboko said the country should not amend its constitution to allow President Joseph Kabila to run for a third term in 2016.

On Sept. 15, a court sentenced Kiboko to three years in prison for “incitement to racial hatred, tribalism and spreading false rumors.” His family and human rights advocates disputed the charges.

Even in prison, Kiboko continued to follow his call as an evangelist. Like Paul and Silas, he witnessed to Christ’s liberating grace. He preached each week and his family brought food for a communal Agape feast. Through this ministry, more than 700 in the prison made a profession of faith at these services, and Kiboko, with his bishop’s blessing, baptized more than 300. The prisoners called the work Vano Ministries.

But in January this year, the government transferred Kiboko to a military prison, where he faced more restraints. He no longer could evangelize or aid his fellow prisoners.

His siblings never ceased their advocacy for Vano Kiboko’s release, urging United Methodists to contact their national leaders to help secure their brother’s release. They were particularly concerned that their brother was not receiving needed medical attention for his diabetes and other ailments.

The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, the denomination’s missions agency, also advocated on Kiboko’s behalf. A mission agency staff member visited Kiboko in prison in May last year.

Other United Methodist leaders in the international community have been quietly working in the background as well.

“We are immensely relieved and grateful to hear about Vano Kiboko’s release,” said Thomas Kemper, the agency’s top executive.

“Throughout his jail faith journey, Global Ministries prayed for him, visited him in prison and engaged in a constructive dialogue on his behalf with DRC leaders, both political and religious leaders. Above all, Vano's resilience kept his faith and hope alive as he became a blessing to so many of his fellow prisoners.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. Linda Bloom contributed to this report.

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