One year after agreements between the government and armed groups were signed in Bangui on 6 February 2019, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and the Archbishop of Bangui, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, take stock of the situation. The interview was held by Amélie de la Hougue.
ACN: On 6 February 2019 a peace agreement was signed by the government and 14 armed groups. How do you see the situation now, one year later?
The violence has dropped dramatically, and the peace agreement was instrumental in this. Before the agreement, violence and attacks were laying waste to the country, but since it was signed, it seems as though the people have internalised that peace is their mutual goal. Troubled areas still exist, of course, but not as many as before. We now have to increase our efforts to end the violence completely.
For years, you have been travelling the length and breadth of the country to speak to people of all denominations and to appeal to them to support peace. Have you seen changes in people’s behaviour?
Yes. For example, I have just returned from a trip that took me through the north-western parts of the country. During this trip young people said to me, “We understand now and are ready for peace.” I believe that this by itself can be considered a victory and I am very pleased to hear young people saying this. It is our duty to ensure that tensions are lessened, to act as an intermediary between people and to work on disarming hearts and minds so that the people can live together in fellowship.
What still needs to be done to promote peace?
We have to be tireless in our efforts because the breeding grounds of violence are still there, as are the enemies of peace. The enemies of peace, they are the ones who illegally occupy the homes of those who have left, they are the ones who believe that others should stay away and that they are the new occupants. In the name of justice, we are asking these people to return the houses to their true owners, because it is their rightful property. This work is carried out through encounters, but also by implementing joint projects that require groups to work together to achieve a mutual goal, so that they learn to get along with one another again.
Who can initiate these projects? The government? The Church?
The government is relying heavily on the Church. For example, following a three-hour meeting with members of the general public, I recently said to the deputy prefect, “It is now up to you to continue to work with the local bishop”. The deputy prefect has no funds, he does not even own a motorcycle. He had arrived on foot. Therefore, if the bishop does not help him to bring peace and restore order in such situations, nothing will change.
Do you feel confident about the presidential elections taking place in late 2020?
I don’t have access to the most current information as politicians do, but you can feel the tensions and see the verbal battles … In this context, our role is primarily to emphasise that politics is not a platform for killing, but for development. You can hold opposing ideas, but you cannot pull out a knife to kill each other. On the other hand, I see that the general public is waiting for reconciliation and justice, in the hope that it won’t be said afterwards that the most powerful had won again. To ensure that people are not left alone with their desire for revenge, reparation must be made and the laws must apply to all and be enforced for all.
The Church of the Central African Republic has just celebrated its 125th anniversary. How is it doing today?
It derives its strength from its shepherds and lay people. I saw how they kept their faith even as the crisis reached its peak and continued to go to church. That shows an immense stability and firmness of faith. I visited Bilao last year. They haven’t seen a priest for more than ten years, but despite everything, the Christians are still there and have remained loyal to their faith. But when you see the corruption and the cronyism practised by intellectuals and prominent persons, one does at times ask oneself what happened to the Gospel. Has it been transformed into something purely cosmetic, even though it should be our foundation?
What does the Church consider a priority?
First and foremost, education, because illiteracy continues to be widespread. And a child who cannot read or write is at risk of being drawn into a rebellion. The Church plays a key role by giving children the opportunity to learn to read and write, because neither the government nor the people can afford to pay for their education. They find it difficult to even scrape together five euros. Education is also another way to get young people to accept the road leading to peace. We tell them that, for Christians, Christ is the source of this peace.
Where do you find the strength to continue to work tirelessly to bring about peace?
My strength comes from Our Lord Himself. I pray to Him to give me time for devotions and prayer, because otherwise, I will not be able to evolve further. And it is the Lord who gives me the strength and the energy to keep setting off on my travels. Christians see the world differently from other people; their viewpoint emerges from their faith. They are filled with hope.
Do you have a message for the Christians living in the Western world?
Yes, I would like to say to Christians in the West that Christ has not changed, He is the same. He is the one who gives people the strength to change. We sometimes lose ourselves in dismal thoughts, in loneliness, in indifference. We don’t know on whom we can lean, we lose our point of reference … God is there. And if you want God to be there, then you need to take the time to meet Him. Also go out and initiate encounters with witnesses, with existing communities. Do not be afraid. God showed us a way out through His Son, Jesus Christ. We have to leave our comfort zones so that we can encounter others. This is the missionary challenge! I believe that now more than ever before, it is our Christian duty to be the light and the salt of the earth. It is not about wishing that there were more of us. There may not be a very large number of Christians, but they have to be dynamic and determined, in accord with themselves and with others so that it can be said of them, as Luke wrote in the Acts of the Apostles, “See how they love one another.” We need vibrant and joyous communities. You have sown Christianity and now the Africans are coming to you, they bring the Gospel with them, receive them as your brothers.