Church in Central African Republic aims to sustain the 'miracle of Pope Francis'

"False information is frequently put out on the Internet, claiming that Muslims have been killed or tortured--as though someone is trying to stoke the unrest."

By Marta Petrosillo

NEW YORK—“The tension may have eased, but it still remains beneath the surface,” a veteran Italian missionary said of the situation in Central African Republic.

 Father Aurelio Gazzera, a Carmelite who spent the past 20 years in the country, told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need of an eruption of violence earlier this month when militias clashed over cattle. So-called anti-Balaka fighters, Christians, confronted Muslim so-called Seleka rebels, who ended up the losers last June 11.

Subsequently, the rebels attacked the small town of Ngaoundaye, whose residents took refuge in the local mission run by Capuchin priests, reported Father Gazzera. The rebels entered the compound but “limited themselves to robbing a few things and threatening both the friars and the local people, without being too violent.”

In the capital of Bangui, there have been ongoing clashes in the Muslim quarter known as KM5, or PK5. “Some gangs of Muslims had taken refuge in the quarter, where they are probably protected by the inhabitants of this Muslim enclave, in which no one else dares enter and in which both the police and the UN troops” face considerable violence, the missionary reported.

The gangs had pulled back, following the arrest of some of their members, but then kidnapped six police officers as bargaining chips to force their release. “It is really a serious matter that members of the police force should have been kidnapped in the capital of the country,” said Father Gazzera, charging that it “confirms the extreme weakness of the government.”

Father Aurelio Gazzera at Mass.2.jpg

The authorities initially refused to negotiate, but the fact that the police officers were freed again and that the scheduled trial of the arrested gang members never took place, suggests that the government ended up giving in to the demands of the kidnappers.

These instances of lawlessness risk undermining the climate of peace and calm that has prevailed in the Central African Republic since the visit of the Pope there in November 2015. Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui has even spoken in recent months of the “miracle of Pope Francis.” These fresh tensions could explode into new interreligious clashes.

As Father Gazzera explains, “false information is frequently put out on the Internet, claiming that Muslims have been killed or tortured—as though someone is trying to stoke the unrest” and seeks to unleash Christian-Muslim animosity. What’s more, the Seleka have extended their reach again and now control some 60 percent of the country.

As Father Gazzera stressed, at this critical juncture Christian-Muslim dialogue is of the utmost importance. It is for that reason that Aid to the Church in Need is sponsoring—as part of its international ‘Be God’s Mercy’ campaign—interreligious encounters in Bangui.

There will be some 650 participants, including priests, men and women religious and Muslim religious leaders. “It is an extremely important project,” said Father Gazzera, “especially now that there is the danger that people will go back to” a shooting war. 

Father Gazzera at Mass; ACN photo


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