In the Central African Republic, a narrow escape from death, signs of healing
"The parishioners found it in themselves to do a lot more for yesterday's enemy than they usually do for their own brothers and sisters, the poor of the parish."
By Eva-Maria Kolmann
BOZOUM, Central African Republic—He was almost lynched by an angry mob. Italian missionary Aurelio Gazzera said the rosary as rocks pelted his car and furious people were pointing weapons at him. His offense? Support for the withdrawal of Islamist Seleka insurgents—most of them foreign fighters— from the Central African Republic. But then something extraordinary happened:
Two Muslims stepped in front of him and saved his life. One of them was an insurgent with a reputation for brutality, and who had himself once threatened to kill Father Gazzera.
The 52-year-old Italian Carmelite cited the Gospel: “Do good to those who hate you!” Immediately after his narrow escape, he began to head out several times a day with a few volunteers from his parish to visit Muslims who had barricaded themselves in to protect themselves from angry Christian mobs out for revenge.
He provided them with drinking water, rice and medicine paid for out of his own pocket. His main objective, he told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, was to give them comfort. He said: “These were the same people who had threatened me and broken the windows of my car with rocks. Now they were like frightened children—women and men who in need.”
As time went on, the priest eventually managed to soften the hearts of his parishioners as well. After most of the Muslims were evacuated by convoy in February of 2014, there were only about 200 of them left in the city of Bozoum. Most of these were women and children, who still need help today.
He was very careful in asking his parishioners to help those left behind: “I did not insist too strongly because I know that the wounds are still fresh. Many have lost family members, others have relatives who were tortured, several were robbed and all of them had to stay away from their homes for weeks at a time, and all because of the Séléka and a few local Muslims.” In the past few years, more than 5,000 have died in fighting in the Central African Republic, Muslims and Christians alike.
Again, there was a remarkable turn of events: One Sunday, I was profoundly touched by my Christians. They brought a very large amount of food and collected more than 85 dollars!” This is a lot of money for an extremely poor country. The parishioners found it in themselves to do a lot more for yesterday’s enemy than they usually do for their own brothers and sisters, the poor of the parish.”
Father Gazzera is a great admirer of Father Werenfriend van Straaten, the founder of Aid to the Church in Need, finding inspiration in the late Dutch priest’s writings: “After World War II, Father Werenfried initiated an extraordinary charitable effort: he asked the Dutch to help the Germans! After the war, Germany was destroyed in every respect. And the resentment harbored against the Germans was very strong. However, Father Werenfried had the courage and daring to ask those people who had almost lost everything because of the Germans to help the German refugees who had lost everything!” History is repeating itself in the Central African Republic.
In the Central African Republic, Aid to the Church in Need supports the training of prospective priests and religious who, said Father Gazzera, will be the peacemakers of the future. In addition, the organization is helping the local Church perform its pastoral mission in one of the poorest countries in the world.
ACN photo: gifts on the altar, Central African Republic