Christians gather to pray at church destroyed by terrorists in Mozambique

When terrorists overran the town of Mocímboa da Praia, most of the population, including Christians, fled. Now, the Christians who returned have no access to the sacraments, and no clergy or religious to assist them, but continue to gather close to the ruins of the local church to pray together every Sunday.

When the Catholics of Mocímboa da Praia, Mozambique, gather near the ruins of the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Sundays, it is more than devotion, it is an act of resistance, and a symbol of hope for the Christians in this seaside town where the Jihadist insurrection in the Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique began in October 2017.

Catholics gather to pray in this spot, near the ruins of the church of the Immaculate Conception in Mocímboa
Catholics gather to pray in this spot, near the ruins of the church of the Immaculate Conception in Mocímboa

Mocímboa da Praia has been occupied by terrorists more than once since then, and the signs of destruction can be seen everywhere, but especially in the church, which was burned and razed to the ground. All that is left are ruins. This area of Mozambique is mostly Muslim, but the few Christians who remained or those who returned to Mocímboa gather near the scorched church walls or under nearby mango trees to pray every Sunday.

There are no priests or religious left in the town, which is under constant threat. Most Christians also left but according to local sources over 60% have come back. Vicente Gabriel is a catechist and tells the intentional Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) that he felt compelled to return to the place he has called home since he moved there almost 20 years ago. “I am a Christian from Mocímboa da Praia. I was baptised in this parish in 1995, I was confirmed, and I married here in 2019. When the terrorists occupied the town, the parish was abandoned. We left for Pemba, but then we returned. Now we are here, but we have nothing… The church was destroyed, as was the parish house.” Faith, however, remains alive. “We meet here every Sunday, under the mango trees, and we pray with the community. Conditions are terrible, but we don’t give up. We continue to practice our faith, and we give thanks to God”, he explains, in an audio message sent to ACN.

In a video sent to ACN by Hermínio José, a local journalist, the extent of the damage can be seen clearly. The church was destroyed in 2020, and by now vegetation has overgrown the ruins. “The faithful began praying here again in 2022. They sit under trees, on the floor, or on rocks, because everything was destroyed. The building is not salvageable, we’re not talking about a reconstruction, but about a completely new building”, he explains.

The ruins of the church of the Immaculate Conception in Mocímboa
The ruins of the church of the Immaculate Conception in Mocímboa

“Our parish was badly damaged, but with faith and hope we continue to pray”, says Teresa Mariano, who is a member of the parish choir. “We gather early in the morning on Sunday and ask God to send the Holy Spirit upon us, to give us strength to carry on, so that our parish is not completely abandoned”, she tells ACN, also in an audio message.

“Through my baptism in this parish I was born for a second time, and I cried when I heard that the building had been destroyed.”

Surprisingly, despite the ongoing threat of terrorist activity, Christians have continued to return to the town, which means the community has been growing.

“We sit here in the shade of the trees, but we don’t even have chairs. Nonetheless, we continue to pray to God. Later, if all goes well, God will provide us with a way to acquire chairs”, says Vicente Gabriel.

“Our message from Mocímboa da Praia to the world is that you continue to pray for us. We must have faith. One day the parish of the Immaculate Conception might return to what it once was, we have that hope. God is everything. We have courage, we cannot abandon God because of these events: these are all signs of life”, the catechist concludes, pointing to the fact that community life continues, despite the circumstances.

The bishop of Palma hopes to rebuild the church, but only when the security situation improves
The bishop of Palma hopes to rebuild the church, but only when the security situation improves

ACN is in contact with the Bishop of Pemba about possible help with the reconstruction of destroyed chapels. At the moment, Bishop Antonio Juliasse remains concerned about the long-term security situation in Mocímboa da Praia, but the diocese is prepared to move forward with a project for the construction of a parish hall which could also be used as a church before a more permanent solution is found, preferably when peace returns to the region.

Bishop Juliasse recalls visiting the community and being moved by the devotion and joy he witnessed. “In July of last year, I visited a community in Palma District. We celebrated Mass beneath the mango trees, in the rain and cold, but the people remained for two hours, singing and dancing. I was deeply moved with the hope in the faces of the people.”

Aid to the Church in Need continues to follow the situation in northern Mozambique closely. The foundation recently approved an aid package for the Diocese of Pemba, including support for internally displaced, subsistence aid for 60 women religious and 17 priests, and formation support for 48 seminarians, as well as projects related to the spiritual assistance of victims of terrorism, and radio evangelisation programmes.

 

By Paulo Aido.

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