The suffering Church in the Central African Republic

Posted on December 17, 2013. Filed under: News | Tags: , , , |

Letters from the Central African Republic

Dated Dec. 5, 2013, a letter written by Abbot Dieu-Béni Mbanga, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic

More violence—it is too much!!

Christians in the Archdiocese of Bangui went to sleep last night planning to get up today to join the diocesan pilgrimage to the Marian sanctuary at Ngukomba, some 24 kilometers (14 miles) from Bangui, on the Damara route. It turned out very differently. The firing of weapons of war woke up all of Bangui. There were reports of clashes between armed groups: one the one hand fighters belonging to anti-balaka forces (associated with the ousted president), and, on the other hand, Seleka (Jidadist) forces.

Some residents caught between warring parties stayed holed up at home; others found refuge in churches and with religious communities. By mid-morning, the parishes of St. John of Galabadja and Bangui’s Cathedral of Our Lady the Immaculate had taken in some 1,000 people; St. Peter of Gobongo about 2,500; St. Bernard more than 3,000; Our Lady of Africa more than 3,500; and St. Paul of the Rapids more than 5,000. The stream of people seeking shelter continued to grow in the afternoon, doubling in size, with their number tripling by nightfall. Church facilities also took in the wounded who have been without medical care until now.

Some parishes, like Our Lady of Africa, came directly under fire by Seleka militants; others, like St. Peter of Gobongo, St. John of Galabadja, St. Bernard of Boy-Rabe, St. Charles Lwanga of Begoua, received threats of attack.

The violence plunged a number of households into mourning. There are a large number of victims among the civilian population. Different figures are given: 85, 105, 130, more. One thing is certain: the finding and counting of the dead has not finished, especially as we learned that revenge attacks by the Seleka forces on the non-Muslim population are going on pretty much in all neighborhoods of the capital; plus, anti-balaka forces have not yet left Bangui and its surroundings.

As the one in charge of the site of the Marian sanctuary of Ngukomba I am particularly worried about the safety of scouts and guides, as well as of a few pilgrims sent out there yesterday, who are the targets of reprisals. I keep them in my prayers and commend them to yours: that, through the intercession of Mary of Ngkukomba, God may guard over each of them and protect them, just as He promised to all those belonging to His people: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Num. 6: 24-26).

The head of the transitional government announced via radio a ceasefire between 6PM and 6AM. As night is covering the Central African Republic with its dark mantel, a ‘night of long knives’ is certainly to be feared. We hope that the UN Security Council’s passing—at 4PM this afternoon—of a resolution authorizing the intervention by African and French forces will go into effect immediately, along with the decision of the French Security Council to intervene this evening; and that these actions may be followed by provisions for the unarmed population of the Central African Republic, which has already suffered too much …

A letter dated Dec. 6, 2013

All night, until the end of the ceasefire, sporadic gunfire was heard in some neighborhoods of Bangui, and bodies were found near Fatima, Bimbo, PK15 on the Boali route, at Boing, Kattin—I passed them by. There are ongoing reprisal attacks and pillaging targeting the non-Muslim population by members of the Seleka faction; these have doubled in intensity at Boy-Rabe, Fouh, Gobogon, PK 10, PK 11, PK 12 … The rain that has been falling on Bangui and surrounding areas since dawn has by no means kept these faithless and lawless attackers from the throats of the peaceful inhabitants of Bangui.

You will surely remember the fear I expressed yesterday in these words: “While night covers the Central African Republic with its dark mantle, a night of long knives is to be feared.” Today, between noon and 13.00, I went to the FOMAC (Multinational Force of the Central Africa) military base at Mpoko in the hope of finding a corridor that would allow safe passage for the scouts, guides and pilgrims still stuck at the Marian shrine at Ngukomba who are at risk of becoming targets for reprisals. What atrocities did I not see on the way from the cathedral to the base:

  • More than 30 lifeless corpses of men, women and children lying on the ground, some of them close to Seleka militants
  • The streets, the roadways, the marketplaces are deserted.

Information gathered at the beginning of the afternoon made clear that what I had seen was only the tip of the iceberg. Many dead are strewn across the footpaths and at street corners in almost all the neighborhoods of Bangui and surroundings.

For example:

  • In the Boeing neighborhood near the Bangui-Mpoko airport 40 bodies were found; while at Begoa one of the neighborhood chiefs was assassinated this morning along with his children, and everyone is saying there are too many deaths;
  • The lives of those hiding out at home are in danger;
  • Those who have found refuge in Church buildings are not safe from bullets in the least, as attacks by Seleka militants are even penetrating these structures. That is what happened today in the parish of St. Bernard de Boy-Rabe and in the Monastery of Our Lady of the Word where there are reports of already three deaths among the people who found refuge there; one person died of a heart attack, the two others died from gunshot wounds; the same is happening at the parish of St. Charles Lwanga of Begoa and in the Protestant church of Castors.

With regard to the last example, the protestant church of Castors has taken in more than 1,000 people. Last night, that church received threats of attack because of the mobilization of young people in the area that had come in the wake of protests against the (Nov. 16) assassination of local magistrate Modeste-Martineau Bria by Seleka militants. Today, a Seleka colonel named Bichara and his men entered the church and ordered only women and children to leave the church, the men having to stay inside. The men did not comply and decided to leave at the same time as the women and children. That is when Seleka forces opened fire on them, killing five men.

Seeing all these atrocities and the cold-bloodedness of those committing them with impunity, one has the right to question the humanity of those faithless and lawless oppressors of the peaceful people of the Central African Republic. Seeing how they have no respect for the living or the dead, it makes one wonder if human life has any value in their eyes. We have heard of older people [who have been victims], whom a humane person must respect, be he or she living or dead. More than the living, the dead deserve respect and honor. Death? Now that is celebrated.

Asked about the reasons for all the strewn across the roadways and streets of the capital, the Red Cross responds:

  • ·         No safe passage permitting the movement of aid workers
  • ·         No vehicle to transport staff or to move the dead,
  • ·         Burial for most of the victims takes place by the side of roadways or streets at the spot where they are found.

It’s clear that without means or freedom of movement the Red Cross is unable to help people. And that has some grave consequences:

  • ·         Parents consider their loved ones missing while in fact they are dead and already buried,
  • ·         Families are unable to honor some of their dead because they do not know the date of their passing, nor the place of their burial,
  • ·         Living spaces are polluted because of these burials in cities, villages and neighborhoods in spots that aren’t intended for grave sites,
  • ·         The psychological trauma caused by the knowledge that someone has been buried, well or poorly, very close to where one lives.

My fear yesterday as the one in charge of the Marian shrine of Ngukomba that the scouts, guides and pilgrims who had been sent there are in danger of becoming target for revenge attacks is moving toward a solution. FOMAC is considering a strategy. We are hoping for a solution tomorrow. Again I entrust the subject to the prayer of the Virgin and to your prayers.

Nelson Mandela—whose death yesterday stole the media spotlight from the pre-genocidal situation in the Central African Republic—left us with a proclamation that should be taken to heart by the warring parties, who cause such suffering for our people: “No one is born hating another because of his color, his culture or his religion. Hate must be learned. But one can also learn love. And love comes more naturally to the human being than hate.”

At the twilight of this day, aircraft that have to be French have been flying over the territory of the Central African Republic, in support of the heavy Franco-Africa patrols coming into the area since this morning. We are waiting for the good this will do for the harmless population of the Central African Republic, who are dying ….

From a letter dated Dec. 7, 2013:

… The discovery of lifeless bodies continued all day long. … Church structures continue to take in people who fear for their lives, including some Muslims who are afraid they will be the targets of revenge attacks by Christians who themselves have been the victims of reprisals at the hand of other Muslims, Seleka militants or others.

…. There are reports that in the 5th arrondissement and around PK 12 Muslims, armed with knives, machetes and firearms are hunting for Christians. Many Christians have been wounded if they escaped with their lives. Their number continues to add to those who already sought refuge in churches, religious communities, or on the tarmac of the airport, leaving their homes and possessions at the mercy of their attackers.

…. Children, young people and the elderly are killed in cold blood in hospitals. It will take time, much time, for the Central African Republic to heal from these wounds.

My worries about the scouts, guides and pilgrims trapped at the Marian shrine of Ngukomba continue. We continue to hope ….

From a letter dated Dec. 8, 2013:

Saturday night passing into Sunday morning appeared to be the calmest since the recent outbreak of violence in Bangui. But the news we received in the early morning hours told a very different story. Through the night Seleka militia continued to take revenge, violate, pillage and kill. They are doing so now, however, in a “silent mode:” they have been going door-to-door in the Castor neighborhood, in the 5th arrondissement, in Kattin, Bimbo, Fouh, Bego, continuing to threaten people with their rifles, wounding and killing them with their knives. This way they don’t draw the attention from neighbors or the patrols of the Franco-African intervention forces. At daybreak, the wounded and the dead were discovered in those areas.

… In the late morning, some of the displaced [who have been sheltered in our churches] wanted to go back to their homes. But very quickly the eerie calm in their neighborhoods, the door-to-door reprisals, the military movements by the Seleka and the presence of armed Muslims persuaded them to return to the Church structures. Even there the Seleka has sought to gain access for this or that reason. That was the case in the parish of St. Charles Lwanga of Begoa which was visited twice by Seleka militants who indicated they were “looking for someone.”

In the afternoon, the minister for social affairs, health, youth and sports—under heavy escort from Seleka militia—toured some of the sites in the city to, it was said, “visit the displaced.” The delegation was not received pretty much everywhere. Nobody wanted the same people who killed and displaced inhabitants to return under the pretext of “making a visit.”

… My fear about the scouts and guides, as well as the pilgrims trapped at Ngukomba finally was resolved. FOMAC gave us a strong escort which allowed them to leave in a truck. They are now living in the cathedral, awaiting the evolution of security conditions with regard to returning to their parishes and families.

In a Dec. 7, 2013 statement condemning the violence committed by all parties, the bishops’ conference of the Central African Republic explained the nature of the “anti-balaka forces.” These are referred to in some reporting on the situation as simply Christian militia, as opposed to the Muslim Seleka, also designated as ex-Seleka forces; hence, the conflict is wrongly depicted as a clash between Christians and Muslims. The anti-balaka forces, the bishops said, are the expression of a part of the population against the numerous abuses committed by the Seleka rebels. “We reiterate,” said the bishops, “that not all anti-balaka are Christians and that not all Christians are anti-balaka,” adding that “the same is true for ex-Seleka and Muslims.”

“We condemn the transgressions committed by both armed factions, the anti-balaka and the ex-Seleka,” the bishops proclaimed in criticizing both the destruction of a mosque in Bangui by anti-balaka elements and the ongoing attacks on Christians sheltered in churches and on Christian neighborhoods perpetrated by ex-Seleka militia.

A letter by Bishop Nestor Desiré Nogo Aziagbia of the Diocese of Bossangoa, Central African Republic

December 16, 2014

Dear friends,Seeking shelter in Bangui

Dec.10, 2012-Dec.10, 2013 … The Central African Republic just celebrated the first anniversary of the rebellion started by the Seleka coalition—seleka meaning alliance or pact in Sango, the national language.

What a strange and sad anniversary, you say! Certainly, the change promised by these hawkers of illusion has been nothing but trials and tribulations for the suffering people of the Central African Republic. They have suffered the worst: rape, assassination and murder, kidnapping and ransom demands, destruction of property, the theft of cows, destruction of farmland, the burning of houses and villages, vandalism of government buildings, the annihilation of historical memory through the destruction of communal records, the pillaging and ransacking of practically all Church structures, the desecration of churches, extortion of all kinds. It is a sinister picture. Desolation is everywhere. This banditry has gotten even worse now that these scoundrels operate openly. The rebels have adopted military ranks which they display with arrogance and great pride.

That is the context of our present life in the Diocese of Bossangoa. Numerous extortions and human rights violations have pushed some of our people to revolt; the violence has led them to organize themselves in order to fight back and to demand justice in the face of Seleka abuses. This has led to the creation of self-defense units called anti-balaka (anti-machetes.) Such militia first appeared in the late 90s in the north-west of the country. They fought against bandits terrorizing the highways, known as zaraguina. These militia were also active in the battle against the Houda and Mbara tribes. These guardians of Tchadian cattle armed with kalashnikovs did not respect any humanitarian corridors, and let their cattle graze on the land of farmers. They did not hesitate to use their weapons to kill, set houses on fire and destroy entire villages at the slightest resistance of farmers. The weakness of our failing state added to the tension and violence throughout the region.

Military clashes between the seleka and anti-balaka always end up in suffering for the civilian population. It is part of the criminal logic of both parties. The Christian and Muslim communities also got caught up and became de facto victims of these angels of death. We have to absolutely get away from the unhappy tendency to lump the anti-balaka together with Christian movements and to identify the seleka with the Muslims. In fact, not all anti-balaka are Christians and not all Christians are anti-balaka. The same is true for the seleka and the muslims.

This logic of reprisal and counter reprisals has sent many people hiding in the bush, hurt and killed a great many, led to the destruction of possessions (fields, cattle, homes, harvests…), and caused enormous displacement. The image of 35,000 displaced people in the Diocese of Bossangoa has made headlines around the world. This number has gone up in the wake of the renewed outbreak of violence on Dec. 5, 2013. The city has been reduced to two centers: the chancellery where some 50,000 people are holed up and the Liberty School that currently houses 8,000 displaced Muslims. It is not mentioned enough, but the situation is more or less the same in Bouca where 3500 people have sought shelter in a mission station.

The origin of this humanitarian crisis in de Prefecture of Ouham is particularly political. Under the pretext of battling (ousted President) Franois Bozize, the regime in Bangui wants to strangle an entire population, crushing any kind of grand plan for the country. How else can we explain the equivocation and the slow response by the government to the crisis in Bossangoa and Bouca? Without being polemical, I simply note that the response was a lot faster in the case of Bangassou, Bouar and Mongoumba. Despite numerous appeals I have made, government leaders have not stopped deceiving us and making false promises, while coming up with all manner of excuses for their lethargic response. It is very clear that the people of Ouham are condemned to the catacombs. Their one sin is to belong to the region where Bozize came from.

With their destruction the goal, the local people have been subject to real psychological torture. That has been the experience of the displaced people at the chancellery and at the Bouca mission station. These people who escaped death are mocked throughout the day by these Tchadian warlords. They are constantly threatening to attack with heavy weaponry the chancellery and those seeking shelter inside. The latest threats came in the wake of the anti-balaka attack on the capital city of Bangui on Dec. 5, 2013. Thanks be to God for the bravery of the Congolese troops of the Multinational Central African Force (FOMAC) and their professionalism in protecting the civilian population, regardless of people’s political, philosophical and religious convictions. The criminal burning down of 500 homes in the neighborhoods surrounding the Bangui’s archdiocesan chancellery … triggered the deployment of French troops in the city. On Monday Dec. 9, 2013, they began with the disarmament and billeting of seleka forces. Some anti-balaka militants who had slipped in among the displaced staying at the chancellery … gave up their arms to FOMAC and French troops, before retreating into the bush. It took a lot of persuasion for these men to overcome their fear and comply with this security measure. We are now entering a period of reasoning and the voluntary surrender of weapons.

The coup of March 24, 2013 was too much. It has plunged this suffering country into the depths of an abyss. The country is in shambles, its administration paralyzed, its economic fabric destroyed. The Central African Republic has become a shadow of its former self. The country now faces one of its worst demons. It is a failed state that has subjected its citizens to lawless hordes of mercenaries. How can we rebuild this country that has been razed to the ground? Hospitals are non-existent and the schools are not functioning. The future of the republic is up for grabs, at the mercy of adventurers and dubious politicians. The prospects for the future are dark and uncertain. Reconstruction will be difficult. As regards the diocese, things are terrible. Moreover, its pastoral institutions—the pastoral center of Bossangoa, the catechetical center of Gofo, presbyteries, convents, churches and chapels—as well as those providing healthcare and education have been pillaged and vandalized. … Nonetheless, we need to do something urgently for those staying at the chancellery. Hence, in partnership with UNICEF, we have repaired the dispensary at Bossangoa.

The military and political crisis that has affected the bulk of the diocese since March 2013 has kept us from being able to properly execute our pastoral programs in the areas of health, education and professional formation. Nevertheless, we have become adept at managing an emergency situation. We thank all those who have supported us financially in our efforts to help victims of the unrest. We thank the friends of the schools of Bossangoa for their precious contributions to the pursuit of activities in the realm of healthcare, agriculture, education and professional formation. … Already I can say that the re-launch of initiatives will largely depend on careful thought, the repair of infrastructure and the production of educational and medical supplies.

The socio-political situation appears to be desperate. Nonetheless, Advent prepares for the celebration of the happy event in human history: God made Himself one of us in His smallness, his humility and his fragility. He lifts us up from our degradation to fill us with His glory. I am confident that this hope for the people of the Central African Republic will not be in vain. The God who stoops down to the poor, the orphan and the widow, will certainly dry the tears in His children’s eyes and bring them His joy.

The letters from  Bishop Nogo Aziagbia, Abbot Mbanga and the statement by the bishops’ conference of the Central African Republic were made available to Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.

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