Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the Archbishop of Bangui, is currently travelling through all the dioceses of the Central African Republic. His tour began last week in the diocese of Bouar in the north-west of the country. While there, from 22 to 24 February, he visited the parish of Bozoum and the town of Bocaranga, where only recently, in early February, there was serious violence. His programme also included talks with the rebels. Father Aurelio Gazzera, the parish priest of Bozoum, accompanied the Cardinal. Later, on 26 February, he spoke to ACN about this visit.
By Eva-Maria Kolmann
ACN: What was your experience of the visit by Cardinal Nzapalainga to your parish in your diocese?
Father Aurelio Gazzera: The Cardinal‘s visit reminded me a little of the visit by the Pope to Bangui a year ago. The joy and the hopes of the people that it inspired were very great! The people gave the Cardinal an overwhelming welcome. Even along the 125 km stretch that we travelled with the Cardinal on his journey from Bozoum to Bocaranga, he had to stop in every village, since the people were already waiting for him along the roadside and wanted to hear a word from him and receive his blessing. It was profoundly moving to see how greatly the people genuinely wanted to listen to the Cardinal. And this listening, I truly believe and hope, was for many of them the beginning of a new journey, just as for many people the words of the Pope were when he visited our country in November 2015.
ACN: You also took part, together with the Cardinal, in two meetings with the rebels of the Antibalaka. What can you tell us about them?
Father Aurrelio Gazzera: The rebels were armed, some of them with ordinary home-made guns they had fashioned out of water pipes, and others with Kalashnikovs. During the war, the Antibalaka were the opponents of the Seleka rebels. Since then they have become a mixed group of men who initially took up arms to protect their families and their villages, but to which a number of youths have now attached themselves who seek to profit from the situation and live by robbery and extortion. To them the Cardinal addressed a calm but emphatic invitation to change their lives and not allow themselves to be fooled by material things and money, and above all not to allow themselves to be led astray by those who were urging them on to violence, only to later abandon them.
ACN: You yourself are very experienced in negotiating with armed groups, and in fact you have already on several occasions succeeded in persuading rebel groups to withdraw, thereby preventing a bloodbath and protecting the civilian population. You were also able to speak to the rebels on this occasion. What did you say to them?
Father Aurelio Gazzera: I invited them to reflect on the fact that those who sow violence will themselves harvest nothing else but death. And I said that the time had now come to start thinking of rebuilding. I also urged them to think about the fact that in reality they were merely serving the interests of unscrupulous people of whom they themselves would be the first victims! And often they do not think of the consequences of their actions, when they cause destruction, exploit other people and burn down houses.
ACN: Do you believe that these meetings with the rebels will have achieved anything?
Father Aurelio Gazzera: Generally speaking, it seemed to me that the men were listening quite attentively, and at least some of them appeared to feel the longing to seek new ways of peace and change their lives. It will take time, but when someone is willing to talk about things, it is always a big step forward and one that can lead to a change.
ACN: Bocaranga was only recently the scene of violent attacks. The journey there cannot have been without danger…?
Father Aurelio Gazzera: Yes, on 2 February nomads of the Fulbe tribe killed 21 people there and wounded several dozen others. They burnt down the marketplace and many of the shops, looted the offices of several aid agencies and generally spread fear and terror around them. The UN troops did nothing to stop them, even though they had been informed of the situation.
So the Cardinal‘s visit was the first happy and joyful occasion following these terrible events. Nonetheless, going there was an act that called for great courage on the part of the Cardinal. The forces of order were completely absent, and on the way there I myself drove ahead of the Cardinal‘s vehicle so that I could get there first and identify and resolve any potential security problems. Thanks be to God, everything went well, even though the armed rebels of the Antibalaka were roaming around, and we also had to pass through a rebel roadblock, 5 km before the city. However, for their part this was more a demonstration of their own power than the intention to really do anything bad.
ACN: What was the most important message of the Cardinal?
Father Aurelio Gazzera: I would say that his most important messages were these: first, „Have trust in God; do not fear!“ This was also in fact the message of that day‘s Gospel reading. And then, „Take a more farsighted view and do not limit yourselves to looking for satisfaction in material things but have a long-term vision! That will make it possible to have a new country, a new life for everyone!“
ACN: In a country suffering from armed conflicts, extreme poverty and the total failure of the state, the Church has an important role to play. Did the Cardinal also speak about the role of the Church, and in particular that of the priests and religious?
Father Aurelio Gazzera: There was a very intense and moving moment in Bocaranga when we had gathered together along with the Cardinal in the sisters‘ chapel with around 20 religious from various different mission stations. Among them there were very young novices, sisters who had just taken their permanent vows, right through to elderly missionaries who had been working in the Central African Republic for 40 years and more. All of them remained at their posts, especially during these four years of war – despite the threats, the attacks and lootings, the attempts at intimidation. The Cardinal emphatically expressed the gratitude of the Church and of the people for this continuing perseverance, despite the war. And he told us about something that happened in a parish in Bangui at the height of the war. One man said to him, „I stayed put, because I could see the light burning in the sisters‘ convent. And I knew that if they were staying, then I could stay as well!“
It is true that the Church is doing a great deal. She is building schools, hospitals, churches, chapels… And then there is also the work she does in bearing witness and raising her voice. But the most beautiful thing of all is simply being at the side of the people. Having the doors of our parishes and mission stations open to everyone who was, or is, in need. This too is evangelisation. It means making the presence and the love of God the Father concretely visible!
ACN: This last year, with help from ACN, you have been able to renovate and enlarge your parish church in Bozoum, in which you welcomed the Cardinal. How important is this church to you and to the faithful?
Father Aurelio Gazzera: For us it was a great joy to be able to welcome the Cardinal in our „new“ church. The fact that we were able to make this dream reality was thanks in large measure to the generosity of ACN‘s benefactors. But I also took pains to emphasise that every one of the faithful in our parish should himself contribute a little piece of his heart and his faith towards the building, and a great many of them helped bring sand, stone, gravel and food by way of a contribution. The building of a church is a very important moment for a Christian community, but not only for them. Even many people who weren‘t even Christians wanted to make a little contribution or at least show a gesture of sympathy, and this was something very special and very moving for us.
We wanted our church to look beautiful – very beautiful – for beauty speaks of dignity. And at this moment in the Central African Republic it is extremely necessary to rediscover the dignity of every individual human being. The beauty of the Church must reflect the beauty of God, and with it our own beauty as Catholic faithful. It reflects our being Christian! We are very grateful to everyone who has helped us to make this miracle a reality!