NAIROBI, Kenya (CNS) — When an attack occurs in eastern Congo, the main causes are believed to be the illegal exploitation of mineral resources, competition for land and politics. But forced Islamization — linked to extremists with ties to the Islamic State group — is emerging as a new twist in violence in the mineral-rich provinces, said the country’s Catholic bishops.

The extremist group is Allied Democratic Forces and is originally from western Uganda. It is among hundreds of militias groups behind the deadly cycle of violence in Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu provinces.

Insecurity in eastern Congo “has many actors and so many goals. Islamization is one of them. Economic interest is another. Islamization through ADF actions … is a major issue of concern for the Catholic Church,” Archbishop Marcel Utembi Tapa, president of Congolese bishops’ conference, told Catholic News Service. “ADF’s strategy is to kidnap and force victims to join the Islamic faith.”

The bishops say that, in the region, militia groups are exploiting the weak points of the regular army to achieve their religious and political goals, including Islamization, occupation of land and the illegal exploitation of natural resources. The violence has left thousands of people dead, millions of others displaced and the general population in untold misery for more than two decades.

The Catholic Church has been raising its voice against the runway insecurity, but it is also working to ensure the followers are not victims of the Islamization, the archbishop said.

“We are inviting Christians to be strong in their faith,” said Archbishop Utembi.

His comments followed the findings of a standing committee of the bishops on the insecurity and massacres in eastern Congo. The committee’s report said Islamization was a kind of profound strategy that would have a negative influence on the general policy of the country in the long term.

“The escapees from ADF kidnap claimed to have been forced to convert to Islam,” the committee added in news statement April 8.

In the past two years, at least 7,500 people have been kidnapped in Congo. Catholic priests have become victims of attacks and abductions; six priests were captives of the militia groups in 2018. Since their kidnapping in 2012, Assumptionist Fathers Pierre Ndulani, Edmond Kisughi and Anselme Wasukundi have never been found. Militia groups have used the abductions to extort money from families and organizations.

The bishops’ committee said about 6,000 people had died in Beni since 2013 and 2,000 in Bunia in 2020 alone. At least 3 million people in the region have been displaced. The armed groups and militiamen have been burning villages, destroying schools and health centers, looting government offices, raiding animals and destroying crops.

“The population feels abandoned. The promises of the central government for the rapid restoration of peace are numerous, but several have gone unheeded,” said the committee.

The bishops’ committee called for the completion of the disarmament and demobilization process and support for demobilized fighters, who sometimes join armed groups or become bandits.