Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 5000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.
ACN supports projects undertaken by the local Church – bishops, priests, religious communities and lay people – which have the specific aim of providing pastoral and spiritual support to Catholics all over the world. ACN only helps projects that have been approved by the local bishop (in the case of diocesan and parish projects) or religious superior (if the project is fully internal to the religious congregation).
Thanks to the help of our benefactors, we were able to contribute 3,000 Euros to enable 40 diocesan and religious priests to attend an ongoing formation session in the diocese of Bouar. Given that the country is suffering such violence and extreme problems, it is especially important to support and strengthen the priests, since they are often the only ones who can really help their people not to lose hope.
The priests of the diocese all benefited greatly from these days of exchange and ongoing formation.
The formation programme included such important pastoral issues as marriage preparation and how to deal with irregular marriage situations and, more generally, the appropriate formation for the Sacraments, adult baptisms and the role of catechists in the small and remote rural villages. At the same time the priests were able to reflect on their own vocation and the importance of the priesthood, while additionally receiving training in a range of practical matters, such as bookkeeping, general administration and record-keeping – all matters that are essential and obligatory in every parish and institution but for which many priests are often inadequately prepared when required to take over a ministry which demands such skills. The priests of the diocese all benefited greatly from these days of exchange and ongoing formation and wish to express their gratitude to all our generous benefactors who made this meeting possible.
Sadly, however, immediately after these beautiful and encouraging days, there was a terrible and tragic incident. 47-year-old Capuchin Father Toussaint Zoumalde, who had so recently given a talk on the priesthood and the vocation of the priest, was murdered on his way home from the meeting. This priest, who himself came originally from the diocese of Bouar, but was currently serving as Provincial Superior of his order in Chad, had been planning to spend the night in Ngaoundere, in Cameroon, on his way home, when he was stabbed to death by unknown assailants. He was a highly learned priest who had studied in Rome and himself been involved in the work of priestly formation. Friends and colleagues described him as a fine and multitalented individual with a profound soul and a great love of the Church and the priesthood in particular. A songwriter and poet, he had a wonderful manner with young people, to whom he brought the Gospel message, and he had previously been responsible for the Catholic radio station in Bouar.
We were able to contribute 3,000 Euros to enable 40 diocesan and religious priests to attend an ongoing formation session in the diocese of Bouar.
In Chad, in addition to his many other activities, he was the head of a cultural museum of the Mboum ethnic group. In their obituary for him the Capuchin Fathers wrote: „In killing him on the night of 19 March, the cowardly hand of his murderer knew nothing of the beauty and elegance of Brother Toussaint, this priest who was so rich in the fine qualities of the Gospel and the beauty of the priestly order.“
So it was, that just a few days after meeting with their fellow priests in Bouar, at which Father Toussaint had given his confreres such inspiring and profound reflections on the priesthood, his mortal remains were carried to their burial by his brother priests, amid great mourning among all the people and the entire Church in the diocese. The words he had spoken at this meeting of the priests have thus become his lasting legacy.
In his first letter to the Christians in Asia Minor, Saint Peter writes: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pt 2:5).
The Carmelite Fathers in the Central African Republic understand these words both literally and metaphorically. They see themselves as living stones in the Church and they also manufacture stones, or more precisely, bricks, with which they build schools, churches and hospitals. The very first missionaries here did the same thing over 120 years ago. Now it is a matter of trying to rebuild the country after decades of power struggles and civil war. “Our bricks will prove stronger than war and hatred”, says Padre Federico – and by that he means both the living stones which are the Carmelite Friars and the bricks for building the houses.
For while the old bricks, made of baked clay, eventually crumbled, the new bricks they are producing are made of earth, sand and cement, compressed in a special machine with just a little water. They will last practically forever, an image of the fidelity and perseverance of the Carmelites. Bodelo is 20 years old. A refugee, he sought shelter with the Carmelites, along with his family. Seeing the new bricks, he exclaims enthusiastically: “Mbi ye ti ga maçon – I want to be a bricklayer.”
For Bodelo and other refugees like him, there will be opportunities to work in brickmaking and rebuilding. The Carmelites will also be selling the bricks for other projects – like the centre for undernourished children that is now being built in Bangui at the Pope’s request. “Not a bad beginning”, laughs Padre Federico, “to have the Pope as our first customer!” But what matters most to him, and to the Holy Father too no doubt, is the steady trickle of young men knocking on their door. “They are the stones with which we are building the Church of Christ in this country”, he says. Except that while it takes no more than a week for a brick to be ready to build with, the formation of a young Carmelite novice will last from the first moment of his vocation until the end of his life, built into the walls of the living Church. “And whereas all the bricks are identical, each brother is quite different from the next. They all have the same goal and all burn with the same love, but each one builds different mansions with this love in the Kingdom of God.” For 10 years now, Padre Federico has been responsible for the formation of the postulants, novices and seminarians.
He has asked our help for the 38 young Carmelites in the monasteries and seminaries of Bangui and Bouar and also Yaoundé in Cameroon. A total of €22,800 will help these young hearts burn brighter and these young men become living stones in the spiritual house of the Church.
The Central African Republic is not only the poorest country in the world, but at the same time one of the most dangerous. For five years now an on-going civil war has been ravaging the country, with fighting continuing between the Islamist “Seleka” rebels, the so-called “Anti-balaka” militias, drawn from the non-Muslim population, and soldiers of the regular armed forces. The international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) spoke recently with the Spanish-born Comboni missionary Juan José Aguirre Muñoz. Now aged 64, since the year 2000 he has been bishop of the Diocese of Bangassou, in the south-east of the Central African Republic
ACN: The Central African Republic rarely hits the headlines. Nevertheless, there is a humanitarian tragedy unfolding there. Islamist rebels, non-Muslim militias and regular troops are fighting one another. And in the midst of it all is the civilian population. Again and again there are brutal attacks and atrocities. And they are continuing in your diocese of Bangassou. A mission station was attacked there on 31 December 2018, was it not? What happened there, and who was responsible?
The town of Bakouma was attacked on 31 December 2018 by the armed rebels led by the warlord Nourredin Adam of the FPRC (Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique, Popular Front for the Renaissance of the Central African Republic, a Muslim Seleka faction). The town was destroyed, and the Catholic mission pillaged. A week later there were still unburied bodies lying in the streets of the town. 9,000 people from the town of Nzacko who were living in a refugee camp there, fled into the bush in conditions that were unspeakable – in their haste to escape the violence of these very violent mercenaries. The people of Bakouma also fled! Many of them eventually arrived in Bangassou, 85 miles (130 km) away, exhausted, their lives in ruins. Our truck made several trips to and fro to help the exhausted refugees. In our “Mama Tongolo” orphanage there are still dozens of unaccompanied children who arrived in Bangassou in complete disarray, without even knowing where their parents are or whether they are still alive or not; whether they are still hiding in the bush, or whether they have stopped at some village or other on the way. A year ago the town of Nzacko, 50 miles (80 km) further north, was also attacked by these same mercenaries, most of whom are foreigners (from Chad, Sudan, Nigeria…). They drove every non-Muslim out of the town, so that the non-Muslim population have now lost everything, many of them even their lives. The Catholic mission was completely destroyed, razed to the ground – the presbytery, the operating theatre, fully equipped for major operations, the Catholic school, the old church and the new one as well… We feel especially persecuted by these radical Muslims. There are millions of ordinary Muslims in the world who love God and respect their neighbour. But these radical Muslims of the Seleka, who invaded Central Africa five years ago… they are bad people, they do not know Islam.
Visit of the the bishop of Bangassou Juan Aguirre Muñoz to Brazil. Fazenda da Esperança.
ACN: Again and again there are attacks on the refugee camps in the Church’s care. In November 2018 a refugee camp was attacked within the grounds of the Catholic cathedral in the town of Alindao. 2,300 people fled. How is their situation, and how do people cope with the ever present fear?
What happened in the non-Muslim refugee camp in Alindao on 15 November last year was a crime against 26,000 unarmed refugees. There were 80 people killed, including two priests, Abbé Blaise Mada and Abbé Célestin Ngoumbango. As of today there are 550,000 internally displaced Central Africans living in the refugee camps. Many of them have been victims of criminal attacks, and even crimes against humanity. Similarly, other refugee camps have sprung up close to the Catholic cathedrals, as in Kaga-Bandoro, and even in the Catholic missions, for example in Bria, Ippy, Zemio, etc.
ACN: In your diocese you are also sheltering many refugees. But the Muslim population was also attacked…
On 15 May 2018, 2000 Muslims from Bangassou were harassed and threatened by groups of Antibalaka (an incensed crowd of non-Muslim ‘self-defence’ groups and criminal elements) and were escorted to the mosque by soldiers of the UN Minusca forces. A few hours later the Minusca forces abandoned the area and 300 gunmen (irregular soldiers?) opened fire on the mosque, which was filled with women and children, attacking it pitilessly. I went there with three priests and stood in front of the mosque, trying to persuade the Antibalaka to stop the killing. Over the course of three days they killed around 30 Muslims, despite our presence, standing in front of their guns for those three days. Afterwards, with the help of the Portuguese Minusca contingent, the Muslim community in Bangassou asked to be taken to the Catholic cathedral to shelter there. This Muslim refugee camp outside the cathedral in Bangassou has now been there for a year-and-a-half. The attacks by the Antibalaka are becoming less and less frequent. However, those of the warlords Ali Darass, Abdoulai Hissein and Alkhatin, are aimed at expelling the non-Muslims from the areas they have conquered, and ultimately they are seeking the partition of the country into two.
For 10 months the Muslims occupy the Petit Séminaire of Bangassou: small, insecure places. Since then the MONUSCO (Blue helmets) protects the perimeter.
ACN: On a superficial level one might think that what is happening in the Central African Republic is a religious conflict. Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the Archbishop of the capital Bangui, rejects this vehemently. He has written to ACN that “It is absurd to assume that religion is the sole reason responsible for the chaos.” How do you see the situation, and what are the real causes of the civil war?
The religious conflict is merely a smokescreen to hide the truth. Thousands of mercenaries –some of them Central Africans of the Rounga and Ngoula ethnic groups, but most of them foreigners – have invaded the country from the north, aided and armed by the Gulf states and by Chad, and with the complicity of other countries of the African Union, such as Sudan, Niger, etc. Their aim is to divide up the country, and they are helping themselves like pitiless predators to the mineral wealth of the country – the gold, diamonds, mercury, platinum, the livestock and so forth. Camouflaged beneath the appearance of a struggle between Muslims and non-Muslims (which is also a real one) or of cultural clashes, their underlying instinct is to loot the riches of the Central African Republic.
ACN: The rebel factions seem to have an endless arsenal of weapons at their disposal. Do you know anything about those who are supplying them? Is there any way for the international community to help de-escalate the situation?
The rebels are very well armed, with weapons, munitions, vehicles, logistics… I believe that everything is coming from the Gulf nations, with the complicity of the government of Chad. The Central African Army (FACA) is hampered by an arms embargo imposed by the United Nations. It’s all very well to see Russian mercenaries arriving as instructors, but if the soldiers of the FACA whom they are training don’t have any weapons, then what kind of an Army is that? The responsibility for ensuring a level playing field in the conflict depends on the five member states sitting on the permanent committee of the UN and who are currently imposing the arms embargo on the Central African Republic. Which of them wants to see the Central African Republic fall into a black hole? The United States and Saudi Arabia are involved in the business, and I think that France, as a former colonial power, is too…
Then again, for the past five years all the major decisions concerning the Central African Republic have been taken outside the country. There is a secret agenda to split the Central African Republic into two, driven by the Muslim countries and with the complicity of various other countries hiding in the shadows, such as Chad, Niger and Libya. But in the end, after all this politicking, it is always the poorest who pay the price, who have to pay the bills that they never signed. It is the women and the children, the lost young people who don’t know where to turn next, the girls and women who have been raped inside the refugee camps, the old people accused of sorcery, whom we are protecting in our Houses of Hope in Bangassou, the damaged children and war orphans… We, as missionaries of the Gospel, are there beside them, trying to support these poor people and give them some hope for the future, telling them that God is still Lord of history. Even though the NGOs are leaving for the sake of their own safety, the Catholic Church will always remain on the spot, alongside the poorest and most deprived. So often it happens, in moments of extreme peril, that the people run to the Catholic mission to seek refuge there.
ACN: The spiral of violence is continuing, however. Christians are also taking up arms. What can you do as a bishop to prevent this escalation?
For the past five years we have organised encounters promoting social cohesion between Muslims and non-Muslims, in order to open up a dialogue. We have set up platforms such as the Women for Peace, and inter-community meetings, to promote social cohesion. All this worked well. The moderate Muslim communities were willing to engage in the dialogue – right up to the time when the new acts of aggression took place, and so now the meetings have lost their raison d’être, because the non-Muslims are accusing their Muslim neighbours of complicity in their hearts.
At the same time we have denounced all the crimes against humanity, both on the part of the Seleka and on the side of the Antibalakas, and even on the part of the soldiers of the Minusca forces, when some contingents failed to protect the civilian population and simply stood by while they were being massacred, as happened on 15 November in Alindao with the contingent from Mauritania.
In many high-risk areas we have set up Catholic schools, both in the zones under control of the Seleka and those controlled by the Antibalakas. Thousands of children, both Muslims and non-Muslims, attend them, spending the morning there and mixing together, dressed in the same uniform. They play together, study together, associate together… At school they create a relaxed atmosphere that could serve as a model for the adults in the area. It is an investment for the future. Hats off to the teachers who are willing to go and work in such high-risk areas and support the priests, even at the risk of their own lives.
ACN: How do you see the future of the Central African Republic, and what can organisations such as ACN do to contribute to its future development?
ACN is already helping us in an important way. Our priests, our seminarians, our catechists, who remain there resolutely, like pillars of bronze, in some of the most difficult regions, were in many cases trained with the help of the foundation; you also supported formation sessions for Christian families… There are places in the diocese where many Christians have died a martyr’s death. The fact that there is still a Catholic school that is still actually functioning is already a miracle. And ACN is also a part of this miracle, because you are helping us to encourage these exiled families to return and rebuild their homes, helping for school, orphaned and refugee children… The missions of Bema and Zemio in our diocese are able to keep their schools running thanks to ACN and its benefactors. ACN is encouraging our pastoral workers, our religious and priests, by enabling them to take part in retreats and recharge their batteries, and to obtain aid for those who have been traumatised and are suffering from post-traumatic stress. The missionary Church is more alive throughout the world thanks to the grace of God and the work of ACN. Through your publications and media work you are able to show people the trials and tribulations the missionary Church is actually undergoing, all over the world.
ACN is funding two aid projects for the local Catholic community as they return to a scene of utter devastation
The number of people who have died as a result of the terrorist attacks of 15 November last year on the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in the diocese of Alindao and on the refugee camp right next to it, continues to grow, and has now reached over 80, according to information given to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International). What is the reason behind this sudden upsurge in violence against Christians in the south of the Central African Republic? In the report below the local Church analyses the situation and explains the consequences of these terrible events.
“The people, who almost all fled into the forest, are now returning, hoping to be able to find a few grains of rice that they can eat and foraging among the ashes for any beans that have been only partially burnt”, says Bishop Cyr-Nestor Yapaupa of Alindao, describing the dramatic scenes in his town. The number of those who have died since the attack has now increased to over 80, including two priests and two Protestant pastors, according to hospital sources.
A local Church source reports that the refugee camp, which once sheltered over 26,000 people and was supervised by the priests of the diocese, has now been totally destroyed. “The old people and the handicapped were simply burned alive, if they were not already shot dead or beheaded”, Bishop Yapaupa added. “In their panic, many parents were forced to leave one or other of their children behind in order to save the others. The attackers simply fired indiscriminately on the people.” Quite apart from the loss of human life, “the fire tore through the reception centre and several of the Church buildings. The cathedral lost its roof. The terrorists stole cars, motorcycles, solar panels, food from the storeroom, money and fuel…”
The cathedral of Alindao after the massacre.
A country torn apart
At the present time there are over 14 different armed groups scattered across the Central African Republic. The president of the country, Faustin Touadéra, does not have the resources to control the activities of these groups, the remnants of the civil war initiated in 2013, and which dissolved into clashes between the Seleka rebels – an almost entirely Muslim coalition – and the so-called “anti-balaka”, initially a self defence militia (a contraction of the phrase “anti-balas AK-47”, or “anti-bullets AK-47”) which ultimately degenerated into gangs of animist or nominally ‘Christian’ youths.
The authors of this particular terrorist attack were a Muslim militia, an offshoot of the Seleka, ironically named “Unity and Peace in Central Africa” (UPC). So why have the tensions suddenly increased just here in Alindao?
Alindao, “a cow to be milked”
According to the UPC, this was a legitimate act of defence because the Anti-balaka in Alindao had killed two Muslims on 14 and 15 November. However, our source informed us that it was rather the desire to compensate for a lack of means on the part of the UPC, which saw Alindao as “a flourishing commercial centre, and a cow to be milked”. After being expelled from Bambari in October, the UPC was forced to abandon its local commercial support base and the gold and diamond mines it controlled. “The weekly collections extorted from local traders in order to feed their troops” had led to big protests, and so they had had to go in search of another source of income, “Alindao and its war booty.”
The Church as a target
“Organised and structured as she is, the Catholic Church plays a fundamental role in responding to the local humanitarian crisis”, this African bishop explains. The Church maintains relations with the humanitarian agencies, with the president and the UN mission MINUSCA. At the same time, however, she is an “object of covetousness” and an institution that the men of war would like to bring down. Was this the reason for the inaction of the Mauritanian UN forces during the terrorist attack on Alindao, who “in this way smoothed the path for the attackers by not fulfilling their mission of protecting the refugee population”? Our source also provided a further piece of information, explaining that “two days before the tragedy, the leader of the UPC was received by the Mauritanian contingent.” The diocese sees this meeting as having been possibly one of “consensual planning”, or outright collusion. The leaders of the three main faith communities in the Central African Republic – Cardinal Nzapalainga, Pastor Guerekoyame Gbangou and Iman Omar Kobine Layama – have called for an investigation by the international community.
Bischof Cyr-Nestor Yapaupa von der Diözese Alindao in der Zentralafrikanischen Republik.
“We have lost everything, except our faith.”
“We have lost everything, except our faith”, Bishop Yapaupa concludes. “We can still look into the eyes of our enemy and offer him our sincere pardon, without giving way to a spirit of vengeance or fear.” ACN is proposing an emergency aid for the diocese of 45,000 US dollars, to help rebuild the community, and also Mass stipends to help the local clergy in this situation of total desolation.
Izabela Cywa is the director of Bagandu Hospital in the Central African Republic and reports the worrying situation in the region: “a large gold deposit was found nearby and a lot of people came to explore the mines. The number of patients increased, as did the number of abortions because many women came as prostitutes. Most of them are very young girls who get the abortion pill in public clinics. We do not know exactly what they give them, but afterward, these girls come to us in very bad shape”. Watch the video.
How is the situation generally in the country at the present time?
The Central African Republic is continuing to strive as best it can to emerge from the crisis that has affected it like a gangrene for the past five years and more. The new democratically elected authorities are struggling to assert their authority throughout the country and in fact over 80% of the territory is still under the control of rebel groups, who now number around 15 altogether. From the point of view of security we can differentiate between three different zones according to the level of insecurity – red, yellow and green. The major part of the country is firmly in the red zone of extreme insecurity, completely under the domination of the rebel groups. The yellow zone is one in which the rebel activity is somewhat mitigated, and the green zone is the area in which the authority of the state appears to be present.
Bishop Cyr-Nestor Yapaupa, diocese of Alindao.
Is there continuing confrontation between the different rebel groups?
The permeability of the frontiers provides an opportunity to the mercenaries and to all those seeking to take advantage of this war, enabling them to exploit the mineral resources of the country and above all permitting the free circulation of arms and munitions. The arms embargo placed on the Central African Republic has simply plunged the country into an impossible cycle of insecurity, since whereas the legitimate authorities are attempting to comply with the conditions of the embargo, the rebel groups can obtain all kinds of weapons at little cost.
The clashes between the various rebel groups, the threat of division of the country or destabilisation of the governing regime, and the upsurge of new rebel factions continue to be the outstanding features of the situation in the Central African Republic.
How is the situation in your own diocese? Alindao has been at the centre of some of these fratricidal struggles in recent years. What is happening at the present time?
The prefecture Basse-Kotto in the diocese of Alindao is held hostage on the one hand by the faction known as the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic – a group that has emerged from the Seleka and the Muslim militias – commonly known as the mujahedin, and on the other by the self defence groups also known as the Anti-balaka. Meanwhile the civilian population finds itself between a rock and a hard place. For some time now the two groups have switched to a new strategy: rather than confront each other directly they instead set up roadblocks and ambushes on the highways, choosing their victims arbitrarily and above all from among the civilian population, who are simply trying to get on with their lives as best they can. This new strategy is claiming more victims, and the majority of their bodies have not even been found as yet.
How is this affecting your work in your diocese?
On a daily basis it is difficult, if not impossible, to travel from one town or village to another, owing to the insecurity on the roads, with the result that these places are left isolated from one another. There are numerous reprisal killings directed against civilians, both by the Seleka and the anti-balaka.
The rule of the State has been replaced by that of the armed groups, and this despite the presence of the MINUSCA forces – the so-called “UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic” – in the prefecture and some of the sub-prefectures, whose role is basically limited to showing its face without doing anything. In the absence of an official judicial system, mob justice has taken over. The armed groups set themselves up as judges at every level and use torture, mutilation and execution with impunity as a means of repression and punishment against all who oppose them.
In a region like ours, plunged as it is into a situation of insecurity, peace and stability are a volatile and uncertain commodity, because the rebel leaders dictate their own laws of the jungle and act with total impunity, given the absence of any state authority and the lethargy and inaction of the UN forces.
Central African Republic
The violence has caused thousands of people to flee. Where are these refugees?
So many families have been victims of the violence in Basse-Kotto that this has led to large movements of refugees. Some are living crowded together in their thousands in a few refugee camps, while others are scattered through the mountains. Then again there are those who have chosen exile in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For example, in the city of Alindao alone, there are over 30,000 refugees, gathered in four separate refugee camps.
Who is taking care of them?
In the town of Alindao at least, they are being cared for by various international and national NGOs, including the diocesan Caritas, who are providing health care, education, protection, water supplies, sanitation and hygiene. As for the other towns and villages, which cannot be reached owing to the savagery of the rebel groups, the people there are unfortunately deprived of any humanitarian support. These include such subprefectures as Mingala, Satéma, Mobaye and Zangba, whose populations are without any help at all.
According to what we have heard, in these areas the level of mortality is very high, both among pregnant women and among children of five years and under. Women are giving birth in the mountains without any help from nurses or midwives, since there are no functioning healthcare facilities available.
In addition, a great many religious houses and places of worship have been destroyed, and the prefecture of Basse-Kotto has been left with thousands of ghost villages. The refugee camps have now replaced the traditional towns and villages.
What about MINUSCA? Have there been any complaints about its role and effectiveness? What can you tell us about it?
MINUSCA is present in some of the larger towns of the diocese (Alindao, Mobaye, Dimbi and Pavica). It is doing what it can, but not enough to satisfy the expectations of the refugees nor of the existing population. In practice is presence is almost entirely symbolic, at least in the eyes of the ordinary people. And the fact is that, despite the deployment of the UN troops, the modus operandi of the rebel groups has not changed. They don’t seem to be in the least concerned or scared by the mobile weaponry of the international forces. The insecurity continues as before, as do the excesses against the ordinary population. The convoys of vehicles protected by the blue helmets are not an effective guarantee of the free circulation of goods and peoples. And the connivance between some of the UN contingents and certain of the rebel groups, along with their willingness to engage in racketeering, calls into question their lofty principles of supposed impartiality and neutrality, etc. The result is that the people become exasperated and see the UN forces as exploiters, as pernicious and useless, owing to their mediocre performance.
Central African Republic: Rebels
How is your pastoral work affected by the violence all around you?
Generally speaking, the pastoral life of the diocese is paralysed on account of the prevailing insecurity. A few of our priests and Catholic faithful are split between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic (this includes the people of Mobaye, Zangba and Kongbo), while others have joined the community in Alindao (notably the people of Pavica, Kembe, Mingala/Poudjo and Tagbale). The Christian population of these parishes and areas is scattered among the various refugee camps, while a few have taken refuge in the forest and others are still living in exile. Their chapels are in ruins, or have been burnt out and even profaned by the rebel groups. The priests can no longer organise pastoral visits to the rural communities or even to those on the outskirts of the towns. Some of the parish houses have been vandalised, some totally, others partially (Kembe, Mobaye and Zangba). Only the cathedral parish in Alindao and the one in Mobaye are still functioning, while those in Kongbo and Zangba have now tentatively resumed their activities. As far as the parish of Kembé is concerned, access to the districts of Mingala/Poudjo and Tagbalé continues to be difficult because of the climate of insecurity. The catechists there are giving spiritual support to the people.
The last community of religious sisters, the Oblates of the Heart of Jesus, were forced to leave the diocese in 2014 owing to the constant threats to their safety. We are awaiting the arrival of a new community of sisters in the parish for the beginning of the 2018-2019 pastoral year, but we still have to repair the convent, which was ransacked and vandalised by the Seleka.
Given this situation, are you still able to respond to the spiritual needs of your flock?
Given the precarious security situation and the drastically dehumanising socio-economic conditions, which are plunging people into desolation, despair, fatalism and uncertainty, to the point of seeing a complete breakdown in their Christian faith, it is absolutely imperative for the diocese to give proof of its concern and solidarity and attend to the spiritual needs of the believers.
In the present context, the social and pastoral outreach and the mission of evangelization are proving difficult but not impossible. In this situation what is important is what one could call the “ministry of presence/proximity”. So even though in other parishes and areas the pastoral workers are absent out of fear for their security, there is nonetheless a small remnant of the clergy who are assuring a meaningful presence, together with the paternal support of the bishop in Kongbo and in the parish community of Mobaye.
Together with the clergy we daily confront the fear, the threats and the insecurity in order to demonstrate our presence actively and calm the fears of the refugees. Though it is not much more than a simple presence, we managed to foster a sense of closeness by meeting with people, listening to them, visiting, counselling, sharing moments of joy and pain… This pastoral of presence also includes administering the various sacraments and other forms of spiritual service in the refugee camps: the Sacrament of the sick, viaticum, baptism, confession, confirmation, lectio divina in the basic ecclesial communities, movements and fraternities… All of this is a way of bearing witness to the fact that the dangers of life can never prevent the Church from prospering and growing.
What are some of the other priorities in your diocese?
“Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” exclaims Saint Paul (1 Corinthians 9:16). Preaching the Gospel continues to be a must every Christian, in accordance with the missionary mandate we have received from Christ. Our Christian communities that are still functioning are assiduous in attending to the Word of God in our Eucharistic celebrations during these critical times. The Word of God continues to be the foundation of consolation and hope for our Catholic faithful.
And also, even in the midst of of this crisis, the formation of our laity is a top pastoral priority, a formation aimed especially at the catechists, community leaders, movements and fraternities, and with special attention to the work for children and young people, since many of our young people have dabbled in syncretist practices that are very harmful to their faith and their future.
Finally, we are also devoting time to ecumenical work. Twice a month the parish community meets together with members of other religious faiths to organise ecumenical prayer vigils and fasts.
In your view, are the priests and religious equipped to tackle these difficulties?
The magnitude of the crisis, especially at the end of the first semester in 2017, was a surprise to many because we were not prepared for it. Many priests are still traumatised because they were victims of looting and ransacking or forced, helpless, to witness the murder of their faithful, while others were attacked or even threatened with death. Sadly, up till now they have not received any psychological counselling or support, but they are still trying to maintain their morale so as to be able to comfort their despairing faithful, who have even greater need of being “de-traumatised”.
Who is helping them? Who is providing them with moral support while hoping that they will give this support to others?
The clergy find consolation in their faith in Christ and in the unshakeable solidarity that unites the priests around their life of prayer, the celebration of the Eucharist and the chance to share moments of joy and pain. I have realised that during this time of crisis the near permanent presence of the bishop in the diocese is helping to sustain the morale of the priests and the faithful. In the same way the paternal visits by Cardinal Nzapalainga to the diocese of Alindao and Mobaye were of great help in revitalising and comforting not only the Christians but the entire community of refugees, who have been languishing in these camps for over a year now.
How are relations between Christians and Muslims?
Relations between Christians and Muslims vary from one place to another. In some towns and villages coexistence is virtually impossible. There are some roads that people of one particular community or another simply cannot travel, for fear of the worst. However, in other towns and villages the Christians and Muslims are maintaining contact, even though this is no guarantee of peaceful coexistence. Despite this outward coexistence, an attitude is developing in each community of mistrust towards the other. The fear of the other has since developed into a new way of living which now characterises our interpersonal and intercommunity relations.
At all events, we are trusting that reconciliation is possible, because we are convinced that what is happening in the Central African Republic is not a religious war. We have been working ever since the beginning of the crisis to help the different faith communities to understand this fact, and equally we do not fail to remind people of this in order to encourage social cohesion. And while these initiatives appear to be bearing fruit, we continue to apply them patiently.
You speak of reconciliation. What, in your view would be the conditions for this to be possible?
We are convinced that reconciliation is possible, provided that the State can reassert its authority in Basse-Kotto, can guarantee the security of the civilian population, disarm the rebel groups and provide justice for the victims. In addition to this it will be necessary for all the religious and community leaders to engage, sincerely and courageously, in promoting peaceful coexistence.
One of the principal problems is the lack of spiritual and intellectual formation and the number of young people who have abandoned the Christian faith, seduced by animism and superstition. How is the Church responding?
It is undeniable that during this most recent crisis many Christians, above all young people, have abandoned their faith in favour of syncretist practices, such as witchcraft, fetishism and the occult.
That is why, in the midst of this crisis, we have made the establishment of children’s and youth movements into a pastoral priority.
We have also developed a pastoral outreach of listening and catechetical accompaniment, so that we can investigate and discern together with these young people the deeper reasons behind their behaviour and help them to progressively rediscover their Christian faith. Some of them have already taken the step of conversion and returned – like the prodigal son – and been welcomed and helped to find their place within the Christian community, following a penitential path. But the real challenge for the diocese is to give these young people the opportunity to become reintegrated in the social and professional life of the community.
We have to admit in fact that these animist and superstitious practices are not an end in themselves. It is not necessarily animism or superstition that seduces young people, but rather the advantages they hope to gain by becoming involved in the rebel groups. Hence these outlandish practices are a means for young people living in idleness to furnish themselves with a new personality so that they can become part of the armed groups and pursue their own personal interests. Because in a country where a high rate of unemployment and idleness has become the norm, the armed groups sometimes appear to them like a “profession” to which these young people are blindly attracted. And so the response of the Church to the abandonment of the faith must inevitably also involve helping the young to become usefully involved by providing them with some form of vocational training and the establishment of micro-projects.
Is there a particular message you would like to convey to the benefactors of ACN?
We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to all our benefactors for their generosity and solidarity, because it is thanks to you that the diocese has been able to respond to the dehumanising situation facing the people by providing healthcare education, Christian formation of the faithful and caring for the clergy. Many thanks for the help you are giving us! The presence of the priests and their missionary spirit of self-denial as they work among the displaced faithful who are living in poverty is a continuing and powerful testimony by our youthful diocese which, ever since its infancy, has known nothing but difficult times and which is now struggling to rise again from its ashes. We commend all our pastoral workers, who are working day and night to alleviate the suffering of the thousands of refugees and instil courage into their troubled hearts, to the prayers of our benefactors and to their generosity.
We plainly acknowledge that the diocese of Alindao is still a vast field of work where everything has to be rebuilt following the painful events which continue to destabilise the Central African Republic. Without doubt we still face a great many urgent challenges – the care of our pastoral workers, logistics, rebuilding of our infrastructure, the pastoral outreach to and vocational and professional formation of our young people, healthcare, education and the promotion of good intercommunity relations, etc. And we trust in you to be always at our side to help us to confront these long-term challenges. Because the situation is a grave one!
Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 5000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.
“I invite you all, together with ACN, to do everywhere in the world, a work of mercy.”