The present situation in the Central African Republic, following five years of war and violence, is a profoundly distressing one. Speaking to the 37th Ordinary Session of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Bishop Juan José Aguirre-Muñoz of Bangassou described the country as a “failed state”. Ever since the arrival of the fundamentalist Islamic Seleka group in 2013 the country had been “without an army, without police, without a judicial system”, he said. The total absence of the state was demonstrated, he added, in the absolute absence of any reaction on the part of the state in the face of the present and continuing threat of an attack on the city of Bangassou, in the southeast of the country, the city where he himself has been bishop for the past 17 years.
Bishop Aguirre was invited to Geneva on Wednesday 7 March by the international Catholic charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) to speak at an event devoted to the religious minorities in armed conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. In his intervention the Spanish bishop, who is aged 63 and has been working for 38 years as a missionary in the Central African Republic, pleaded for better “control and security on the borders” of the country, since at the present time they were being freely crossed by “criminals of every kind, who are sacking, destroying and laying waste to” the country, which was effectively “in the hands of mercenaries”. And he appealed at the same time for action against the sale of arms.
The origins of the crisis are economic
The CAR currently holds the unenviable distinction of being in the very last place in the world on the UN’s Human Development Index. The list of its woes is a long one, the bishop explained:
“The people are tired, abandoned, left to themselves. Entire neighbourhoods have been razed to the ground because the Muslim mercenaries have used fire as a weapon of war. Almost a million refugees are currently sheltering in the Congo. Over half the population are in need of food aid, and infant mortality has increased considerably as a result of the war and violence. The educational system has not been functioning for years, and the health system is non-existent. Our medical centre in the north of the diocese has been destroyed, along with our mission. Now nothing is left but the foundations.”
In the face of these overwhelming difficulties Bishop Aguirre appealed to ACN: “We need your prayers, that the Lord may help us to discern the path we should take in order to be able to emerge from the crisis we are in”, he said.
The forgotten war in the heart of Africa
The bishop, who is a Comboni missionary, called on all those involved in the communications media to tell people about this “forgotten war in the heart of Africa”. And he asked for something more besides: “Please make this forgotten war your own concern too.” At the same time, however, Bishop Aguirre urged people not to see this war as “a religious crisis”, because those who have lived through it right from the beginning know that it is the result of a “purely economic problem, though undoubtedly with religious consequences”. Among other things the bishop insisted that “the extraction of diamonds, gold, uranium and petroleum, the trade in hardwoods and the complex issue of transhumance” were “the real reasons behind our disputes”. He suspects “interest groups” of being behind the gross manipulation of information, together with the sad revelation that there are commercial interests actually taking advantage of the crisis.
The critical situation in regard to interreligious dialogue
For Bishop Aguirre the hardest and saddest part of the picture is the situation in regard to interreligious dialogue at the present time. “Despite the great efforts that the Christian and Muslim leaders are making throughout the country, the real situation today is a critical one”, he said. Not only because some of these leaders themselves have been attacked or threatened but also because “the hatred is growing between Muslim and non-Muslim groups, as are the reactions of religious intolerance on both sides”.
Speaking of the difficult situation faced by his own priests, who for months now have been sheltering hundreds of Muslims in the grounds of the cathedral and at the same time risking their own lives in an effort to mediate with the frenzied and violent groups of the so-called ‘anti-balaka’, the bishop explained, “We have held out the hand of friendship to those who attacked us, because that is what the Church does.” And he sadly acknowledges that “in the midst of so much violence we were obliged to bury many people of all different religions, and so it was there, in a common grave, that they were finally united again. In peace.”
Despite everything, Bishop Aguirre is convinced that the only solution is to “continue working for reconciliation, justice, peace and forgiveness, so as to disarm people’s hearts.”
Aid to the Church in Need has been helping the people of the Central African Republic ever since the beginning of the crisis. In 2017 ACN supported some 30 separate pastoral aid projects in the country, giving a total of over 620,000 Euros.