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.
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.
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.
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!