ZAIRE next door and highly affected by the mass killings of Rwanda and Burundi [which were claimed to be the two most Roman Catholic nations in Africa].


February 9, 1996 page 11


KINSHASA: Zaire - The French term procureur might sound almost indecent to the English-speaking ear. But few of Zaire's churches, Catholic or Protestant, could function without one.

In the rough-and-tumble scramble to survive Zaire's predatory bureaucrats and cannibal capitalism, few church officials are more essential than the procureur, the person whose job it is to obtain the money and goods necessary for church activities.

When I first visited Zaire a decade ago the Catholic diocesan procureurs' office [called the procure] was the easiest and safest place to exchange money. Located behind Kinshasa's St. Anne's Catholic Church it offered an exchange rate for traveler's checks midway between bank and black-market rates — but without banks' bureaucratic hassles or the risk of arrest or theft during a street deal.

The procureur is typically a foreign priest, trusted to resist corruption more easily than Zairean priests, who are pressured by economic needs and cultural attitudes to help their many relatives. In recent years, Protestant churches have set up their own procures, which, along with their Catholic counterparts, provide many essential logistic services for both local churches and missionaries.

But no procure carries as much cachet and political clout in Zaire as the wealthy and politically conservative Sovereign Order of Malta.

Founded in the 11th century to give medical aid to Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John — after assuming military duties in the 12th century and relocating to Malta three centuries later — soon acquired the name Knights of Malta.

A lay religious order whose head enjoys the rank of cardinal, it gradually evolved into a sovereign entity akin to Italian and German city-states, largely controlled by a few wealthy businessmen and aristocrats.

This has given it a unique status: as a charitable nongovernmental organization whose "ambassadors" enjoy diplomatic immunity analogous to the Vatican's in many countries. It currently operates or supports clinics and hospitals in almost 90 countries.

The order achieved a certain notoriety for the profascist sympathies of some European members during World War II .............

[Van Papen, who aided Hitler become leader of Germany, was a Knight of Malta ....... JP ]

............... and its later collaboration with the Central Intelligence Agency in covert actions against leftists in Italy and Central America.

[pretty easy to "collaborate" when the head of the CIA is himself a member ! ..... JP ]

Among U.S. knights are the late William Casey [former CIA director under Reagan], former Treasury Secretary Bill Simon and the late J. Peter Grace, a Reaganite businessman.

Grace helped found AmeriCares, an international charity known for its close links to right-wing militaries in Central America and for providing medical aid to Nicaraguan contras in Honduras. One of AmeriCares' largest funders has been the Christian Broadcasting Network run by Pat Robertson.

The TV evangelist is known for his close ties to Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko, extensive economic interests in Zaire [reported to include diamond, timber and gold concessions granted his privately owned, for-profit firm, African Development Co.] and recent lobbying efforts to win the diplomatically isolated Mobutu a coveted visa to visit Washington.

The Knights of Malta diplomatic status has made it a popular aid partner in Zaire, where it first established its embassy in 1987. A 1993 U.S. Agency for International Development assessment of emergency needs in Zaire characterized the order as "a valuable asset yet to be tapped to its fullest" given its "extensive network of contacts on all fronts" and unique ability to "obtain [duty-free] diplomatic treatment" for relief supplies.

At monthly meetings of relief agencies, the order is listed among embassy participants, rather than as a nongovernmental organization. When several aid agencies' vehicles were stolen by Zairean soldiers a couple of years ago, diplomatic intervention by the order assured their return, according to several Kinshasa sources.

The order's activities are many and diverse, Fr. Robert Debourse, counselor at the order's downtown Kinshasa embassy, told NCR. [Debourse, a Belgian priest, has worked in Zaire for 40 years, "the reason I have all this white hair," he quipped.] In addition to providing medical supplies for hospitals and clinics, the order has helped fund Zaire's sole journal for health professionals, supported community -based nutrition centers and provided food to those in Zaire's notoriously ill-run prisons.

The order imports many vehicles for its own and other nongovernmental organizations' medical and educational projects as well as for use by local diocesan development offices. It also organizes logistics for volunteer Belgian-Zairean medical teams organized by 'Doctors Without Vacations' that work at several hospitals for the handicapped.

The order has assisted recent victims of "ethnic cleansing" expelled from Zaire's southern Shaba province to resettle in Kasai, said Debourse. Aided by the European Union and World Food Program, the order helped supply food and transport for new arrivals and seeds for staple crops to farmers at seven sites in the Kasai region.

The order has worked closely with a number of embassies, international aid agencies like Caritas and Catholic Relief Services and local church structures in the Kasai resettlement effort. In eastern Zaire, added Debourse, it also works with Caritas and other agencies to assist Rwandan refugees and has a fuel project with the French oil company Golf and American firm Chevron.

Asked about the order's relations with the Zairean government, "we have a state-to-state cooperation agreement with Mobutu," Debourse told NCR, "just like other embassies." Asked how its role differs from that of the Vatican, "the Vatican treats purely religious issues while we deal with humanitarian issues only," he added. —CC

Steve Askin also contributed to this story.

SideBox- "The order has assisted recent victims of "ethnic cleansing" expelled from Zaire's southern Shaba province.