Catholics in Guinea-Bissau unsettled by vandalism of a church

In the first such incident in the country’s history, several images were destroyed in a church that had recently been rebuilt with the help of Aid to the Church in Need. The authors of the attack are still unknown, but there has been concern over growing Islamic militancy in the region.

The Catholic population of Guinea-Bissau, in Africa, was unsettled by the attack and vandalism of the Catholic church of Saint Elizabeth, in Gabú, on 2 July. Gabú is the capital of the region of the same name, and the biggest city in eastern Guinea-Bissau. The region is mostly populated by members of the Fula and Mandinga tribes, and is around 90% Muslim.

destroyed church in Guinea-Bissau
Church of Saint Isabel of Gabu in Guinea-Bissau, vandalised on July 2, 2022: the images of saints and the cross were destroyed. The church of Saint Isabel of Gabu in Guinea-Bissau had been rebuilt by ACN in 2021.

Speaking to Radio Sol Mansi, a local Catholic broadcaster supported by the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the administrator of the Diocese of Bafatá, Lucio Brentegani, decried the vandalism, and said that “nothing, and nobody, can separate the Christian community” from the rest of the country.

Christians are a minority of just under 13% in this former Portuguese colony in West Africa. Muslims form the majority with around 46% of the population, and followers of traditional African religions make up around 40%. Despite this fact, this is the first incident of church vandalism in living memory in the country.

Images of saints and crucifix destroyed

Originally built in 1946, the Church had been reopened exactly one year ago, in July 2021, after ACN helped build a new roof, fix up the entrance and provide new electricity and ventilation systems. Before the restoration the building was in a very bad state, and at risk of collapse.

Refurbishing of the church in 2021 financed by ACN
Images of the construction work supported by ACN in 2021 to repair the parish church of Saint Isabel of Gabu.

The attackers of the church destroyed the religious images of Our Lady and Saint Elizabeth, the patron of the local parish. A crucifix and an image of Our Lady of Gebra were also smashed.

Fr Lucio, an Italian priest, explains that the latter image is “well loved by all the Catholics in the east of the country, and is a very old symbol of the Catholic presence in Guinea-Bissau. The local community was “deeply saddened” by the attack, as was the Catholic Church in the country.

“We want to continue to live together”

The diocesan administrator expressed his hope that this was an isolated case that will not affect the warm inter-religious and inter-ethnic relations in the country. “There may be some who do not agree with our faith, or with the way we live, but we must continue to celebrate our faith, our trust in God, and our communion with all our brothers, regardless of race or religion. We want to continue to live together, hand-in-hand, loving each other as Jesus taught us”.

The regional Secretary of Gabú, Mussá Câmara, declared that the authorities are committed to finding and bringing to justice those who were responsible for this act of vandalism. But the President of Guinea-Bissau, Umaro Sissoco Embaló, when asked by the press about the case, downplayed its importance. “How many times have mosques been robbed here? If a church was robbed, we just have to let the police do their job. A church was vandalised, is that such a big deal? How often are clocks, electric fans or air-conditioners stolen from mosques? Even in the Vatican, or in Mecca, there are cases of theft, is this such a big deal?”

Growing tension in the region

Although there is no information on who was responsible, there is concern that it could be related to growing extremism in Guinea-Bissau, which the latest Religious Freedom Report by ACN, and the annual US Government report on Religious Freedom, had already warned about.

ACN’s report says that “tension is growing” in this African country, highlighting the fact that “some jihadi terrorist groups have recently become increasingly involved in illegal activities”, concretely drug smuggling.

The growing presence of Islamic terrorist groups in this part of Africa had already led the Regional Episcopal Conference of Francophone West Africa, which includes the bishops of Guinea-Bissau, to publish a joint pastoral message in May, 2019, in which they call attention to the “unsettling wave of violence” local Christians have faced in the region, and call on all religious leaders to “stand together to denounce any instrumentalization of religion”.

Although the likelihood that terrorist groups are active in the region of Guinea-Bissau is very high, until now that has not translated into acts of violence or intimidation against the non-Muslim population. “It remains to be seen if the growing radical Islamist presence will change that”, says the ACN report.

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