According to the “Report on Religious Freedom in the World”, published by the international Catholic Charity ACN (AID TO THE CHURCH IN NEED), Mali descended into chaos in March 2013 following a military coup. As islamist jihadis and rebel groups threatened to overrun the whole country France, the colonial power up to 1960, intervened militarily. In 2015 the Malian government signed a peace agreement in Bumako with a section of the armed rebel groups. While the south is considered relatively secure, the situation in the north is tense.
On 21 May the Church of Mali celebrated the appointment of Archbishop Jean Zerbo as Cardinal. Cardinal Zerbo, who had been officially appointed on 28 June, is the first Cardinal from Mali. The Bishop of the diocese of Kayes, Jonas Dembélé, spoke about the situation of the Christians in the country during his visit to the pastoral charity ACN. He expressed his desire for peace, which remains elusive in Mali despite some slight improvements. In 2016 ACN supported projects in Mali to the tune of 225,000 euros.
How did the Christians in Mali respond to the news of the new Cardinal’s appointment?
The appointment was announced in Mali on 21 May and was welcomed by the population with joy and enthusiasm. And not only by Christians! The Muslims also expressed their joy. A government representative phoned the Cardinal to congratulate him on his appointment. We Christians in Mali are grateful to the Pope for this honour he has bestowed on our Church, which manages to make its voice heard in Mali even though it is in a minority.
How stable do you think the situation is in Mali following the most recent attacks in Bamako and Timbuktu?
Peace in Mali is still not secure but the events which are convulsing the country only occurred in 2011 and do not affect people’s everyday existence. There have been isolated attacks but this has not paralysed daily life. In my diocese of Kayes in the west of Mali we lead a normal life and the priests are not under threat. Muslims and Christians are still engaged in a dialogue there, as they are in the rest of the country. The exceptions here are Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, which priests cannot freely enter. Apart from this, our missionary work can carry on as usual elsewhere in the country.
So in Mopti the Christians cannot freely follow their faith?
No, in Mopti life was already complicated for Christians in 2013 and today the islamists even attack Muslims. In Gao on the other hand the faithful manage to hold divine services. But without priests, since they are refused access to the city.
In two or three places on the border to Burkina Faso Christian communities have already been prevented from gathering for divine service. This has been done by stopping them ringing the bells and forcing them to close the church.
What is the relationship between the Church and the Malian government?
As ever the Church maintains good relations with government. It has committed itself energetically to the matter of schools, the health system and sustainable development. The population has responded positively to this because our efforts are aimed without exception at the population as a whole in Mali. The government has always sought collaboration with the Church and the Bishops’ Conference.
Mali is a secular republic. But certain groups are still clearly endeavouring to establish an Islamic state.
That’s true. It’s repeatedly stated that the Muslims represent the majority in Mali. And since we live in a democracy some people want to exploit this fact, on the principle: “We are the majority and why should we remain in a secular state when Muslims make up 95% of the Malian population?” But Mali decided on the separation of religion and state a long time ago. This decision didn’t come from the Christians or adherents of the traditional religions. Although they are Muslims, even the Malian intellectuals know that in the modern-day world secularity is the essential condition for a more peaceful co-existence. But the politicians sometimes succumb to the temptation to orient themselves too much on the interests of certain groups on whose votes they depend. This is not an easy situation.
Has the Church traditionally had a good relationship with the Muslims?
Mali was an example of a well-functioning dialogue between Christians and Muslims for the whole of West Africa. But the Malian form of Islam here is a more tolerant one. This is continuing but since 2008 we have been observing a gradual Arabisation of Islam, and this makes the situation overall more difficult. In the villages you normally encounter families which include Christians, Muslims and adherents of the traditional religions. Unfortunately we can see today a growth of certain intolerant groups.
How do you assess the future of Mali? How can peace be established?
There is cause for hope. We are trying to make people aware of the fact that, if we wish to create peace, we will first have to start in our own families. Only then will we be able to continue with our efforts in our districts, villages and regions to enable peace to spread throughout the country. We also call on politicians to focus in particular on welfare of Malians and to give priority to the common good over the interests of individual groups who do not have peaceful intentions. There are individuals of good will who are already working in this direction with the support of the international community and ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States). There are signs of improvement, even though we can’t expect an end to the crisis by the end of the year.