There is grave concern in the Church in Mozambique, following the recent violent attacks perpetrated by members of a new jihadist group who, since the month of October last year and through to June this year, have killed dozens of people and are sowing terror among the population, burning houses and attacking not only Christian churches but also Islamic mosques in the province of Cabo Delgado.
Bishop Luis Fernando Lisboa of Pemba issues an appeal, calling for “calm and serenity” among the people of this region in the north of Mozambique, which also happens to be one of the poorest in the country.
Little is known about this terrorist group which bears the same name as the Somali terror group Al Shabab, although there are apparently no links between them. At present the rumours spreading among the population are only making the situation worse. “This ‘enemy’ has no face and no official spokesman”, Bishop Lisboa told to the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need. “We don’t know our enemy; we don’t know who we are fighting against, we don’t even know the motive behind its attacks. People speak of religious radicalism, of a conflict over natural resources, of illegal arms trafficking, political disputes, ethnic rivalries… But the truth is that so far nobody can confirm with any certainty who we are dealing with”, he continued, adding that “there were no common factors among the victims of the attacks, who were from different villages and of different religions. It doesn’t appear to be a persecution of Christians specifically.”
He described the situation of extreme violence as “absolutely new to us all”. It has taken the government, the ordinary people and the security forces by surprise. In the province of Cabo Delgado many people have been detained and interrogated. “Some of them have been released again, but many others have not. Neither the prisons nor the prison staff in Mozambique are prepared for this situation, and so meanwhile there has been a chain reaction of problems linked to human rights violations”, lamented the bishop. In order to prevent new attacks, “they have stationed armoured vehicles in several districts, and there are many soldiers and armed police stopping and searching individuals and vehicles, especially throughout the Northern region of the province”.
Another aggravating factor in the situation is the extreme poverty and high level of youth unemployment in Mozambique, which makes young people an easy prey for the terrorists. “It is said that the young people who agree to take part in this group are promised large sums of money”, Bishop Lisboa told ACN. “We can see that this terrorist group wants to express its fury or its discontent; it is its way of crying out and demanding attention. The young people involved in it are not strangers to us, not foreigners or ‘terrorists’ as we are accustomed to call them. They also include young people from our own families, our own villages, our own parties, our own religious faiths…”
As head of the Church in his diocese of Pemba, Bishop Lisboa is visiting the communities and parishes affected by the violence, offering words of comfort and spiritual support to the people and the missionaries. “We are working to calm people’s spirits and ask them to remain tranquil. We have asked people not to transmit violent images and also not to spread any more rumours about what has happened, because this only creates more panic and only succeeds in fostering an atmosphere of insecurity. We are praying fervently and we ask for your prayers so that these attacks may stop and that the authorities may detain and convict those behind them. We must not allow ourselves to feel trapped or paralysed, though at the same time we still have to exercise caution.”
The main challenges facing the Church in Mozambique
When asked what are the major challenges facing the Church in Mozambique at the present time, the bishop explained, “In Mozambique in general and in Cabo Delgado in particular, we have what is both the great treasure and at the same time the great problem of our rich natural resources. This could be an opportunity to put an end to or at least lessen the differences within the country, but instead it has been the source of constant conflicts.”
There are many other challenges facing the Church – poverty, maternal and infant malnutrition, premature marriages, teenage pregnancies, lack of adequate healthcare among the people.
Looking back, the bishop recalled that “in recent years, following the discovery of many of these natural resources, we have been the target of a veritable invasion of people from all sorts of different places, companies and projects. Our natural resources could create employment, stability and hope for our society if they are well managed, shared and supervised. But the inequalities that have always existed can only be overcome if there is a serious and responsible sharing out of the benefits.”
There are many other challenges facing the Church – poverty, maternal and infant malnutrition, premature marriages, teenage pregnancies, lack of adequate healthcare among the people, lack of educational opportunities, the problem of hidden debt run up by the previous government, which has contributed to the increase in poverty, the absence of national reconciliation after the two wars they have been through – to name just a few.
In a communiqué sent from his diocese Bishop Lisboa encourages all the people to intensify their prayers and “not allow ourselves to be blinded by religious, ethnic or political prejudices, but instead to form ourselves into a great movement of kind sentiments, good actions, good relations, good advice, good initiatives… So that peace, which is always the fruit of justice, may return and reign again among us.”