It is not unusual for the various national offices of the international Catholic pastoral charity and Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) to invite individual speakers to give talks and personal testimonies on the topic of religious freedom. So it was that on 6 August – the Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians – the Brazilian national office of ACN invited Moussa Diabate from Mali in Africa to tell his story. Standing at the foot of the great statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio, he spoke about the reality and the sad tragedy of religious intolerance – but the same time of the hope that is born when God touches our lives, bringing about in our days the same conversion that transformed Saul, the persecutor of Christians, into Saint Paul the apostle, and so proving that there are no limits to love when we open our hearts to God.
Yet another Christian refugee arrives in Brazil and is welcomed by the agency Caritas – but there is no one who understands his language. It is time once again to call on Moussa Diabate, a volunteer who speaks 17 languages, including a number of African dialects.
It was not always like this; it was not always the case that Moussa wanted to help Christians. In fact once he was more inclined to kill Christians. At the beginning of the 1990s, when Moussa Diabate was aged 16, his name was Mohammed. He was the eldest of 19 children and a member of the nomadic Tuareg people, living in Mali in the Sahara desert. His family were Sunni Muslims and very radical. Moussa was studying in the capital, Bamako, when he came to hear of a fellow Muslim student who had converted to Christianity.
The conversion of this student had come about when he contracted tuberculosis and was abandoned by his family in the desert. Some Catholic religious sisters involved in healthcare work in the region found him and cared for him. When he found out that all their care had been given freely and for nothing, this young man decided he wished to follow the same God as they did, and so he converted.
On hearing of the conversion of his colleague, Moussa decided he also wanted to help him. But according to his ideology, the only way of helping would be to assassinate his fellow student. “Since he had converted, I had to kill him in order to save his soul, and in doing so I would be saving my own soul as well in the sight of his family, who wanted to see him dead on account of his conversion. And so I went to the hospital where he was being cared for.” When he arrived, the young man said to him, “I know what you are intending to do here, but before you do, I have to tell you something: Jesus loves you.” Those three words threw Moussa into such confusion that, although he was armed, he did not have the courage to shoot. He went away from the hospital and spent a long time thinking about those three words: Jesus loves you.
He was troubled, he could not work out what was happening to him, but in fact he was changing. Soon he too wanted to become a Christian. He imagined that his family would understand. He spoke about it with his uncle, with whom he used to stay when he was in the capital, and his uncle suggested it was better that he should travel and meet with all his family in the desert. What Moussa never imagined was that while he was travelling, his uncle had sent a messenger ahead to inform his family about his conversion.
It was a Tuesday when Moussa arrived at his family‘s desert caravan. They asked him if he had really converted to Christianity. When Moussa confirmed that he had, they took hold of him, stripped him, whipped him and dragged him through the encampment. He still bears the marks of the lashes to this day. Moussa had barely converted, he had not been even baptized, and already he was bearing witness to his faith, experiencing a suffering similar to that of Christ and being tortured by those whom he wished to love.
Moussa was tied to a tree and given an ultimatum – either he must return to Islam by the Friday, or he would be killed. On the Thursday night one of his relatives came up to him, without anybody seeing, and untied him. That was the last member of his family that he ever saw. He picked up his clothes and fled to the capital. On arriving there, he went back to his college, sleeping on the benches outside.
After a few days at the college, someone came to find him with a card inviting him to attend the Swiss embassy. Dumbfounded, he refused to go. But two days later he was again approached by the Swiss embassy, who this time sent a driver to find him. He called him, saying “Your uncle wants to kill you. You need to seek political asylum.” To this day Moussa doesn‘t know for sure how they managed to find out his story; perhaps his uncle had already been to the college, uttering threats to kill him. But he attributed it to the Holy Spirit, who was already guiding him and protecting him.
On arriving at the Swiss Consulate, they provided him with a new name and a new date of birth. As a result of these changes, Moussa Diabate – which with the addition of the first name, Moussa, means something like a messenger of peace or reconciliation – was now born on 1 January and no longer on 15 July. It was at this time that Moussa also got to know about ACN, through the French language religious materials he was able to obtain at the consulate.
Moussa was sent to Switzerland, and yet he never knew his benefactors – those who had been helping him all this time – since they were people who preferred to help the refugees anonymously. Moussa was baptized, obtained a teaching qualification and wanted to return to Mali and work there for his people – but needless to say in a region far away from his family, close to the Mauritanian border. He began his first job as a teacher and tried to make peace with his family through a gesture reflecting a tradition among his people: he sent the whole of his first month’s salary to his mother as a way of thanking her for having supported him through his childhood. He sent the money by letter and later received a letter in reply from his mother, telling him she would rather see him dead than see him a Christian. His money was also returned to him. It was then that he began to use his salary to help children in need, something he still does to this day.
In 2012, with the advance of radical Islamists into Mali, many foreign embassies left the country. Moussa also left and went to Senegal, and from Senegal to Brazil, where he became a volunteer with Caritas, helping to welcome other refugees arriving in the country.
Moussa founded an NGO where he also welcomes refugees, helping to interpret for them, giving lessons in Portuguese, training courses in how to cope, feed themselves, etc. „We need to give the refugees the necessary training so that if and when peace returns to their countries, they can then return with the necessary skills to rebuild their lives.”
Moussa was baptised a Catholic, but he acknowledges that after his conversion he found it somewhat strange, seeing so many divisions within Christianity. “We are persecuted for being Christians, not for being Catholics or Evangelicals”, he says. “In our charity, we help Muslims as well, because I feel as though I am caring for my own parents. My love for other people is greater than the differences between us.”