Troubled Continent in Focus at International Congress

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ROME, DEC. 7, 2000 (
No one disputes that millions of Africans have died violently in recent decades. Less clear is how many of them were martyrs for the faith.

This was a question taken up at an international congress on «The Martyrs of Asia and Africa,» held earlier this week at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum. The congress was the last in a series of meetings organized by this university center on «Martyrs of the 20th Century.»

Martyrdom in Africa poses a difficult question, given that many people died as victims of ethnic or political wars.

«The victims of the violence that has bloodied Africa, especially in the last decades, are about 12 million,» the director of the Kinshasa, Congo-based magazine Afriquespoir, Father Nazareno Coltran, told the congress. «Grave conflicts have been experienced in Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Congo Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sudan, Uganda. However, who can say how many of these people lost their lives in such circumstances that they merit the title martyr?»

He added: «These are people who have preferred to give up their lives, rather than do evil. … [They died] without a machete in their hand, without a spear or a Kalashnikov.»

Father Coltran favors a broad interpretation of the concept of martyrdom. Martyrs are people whose deaths point up the need for justice and less violence in the world, he indicated. «Their sacrifice helps us to understand better how the world should be, [with] tolerance, respect for the rights of every person,» the Congolese priest added.

This is a viewpoint shared by Armand Veilleux, abbot of the Scourmont monastery in Belgium, who emphasized the importance of the witness of contemplatives. He referred to the seven Trappist monks who were executed in Tibhirine, Algeria, in May 1996 by a Muslim fundamentalist group.

The religious lived in that country only to give Christian witness and serve as a link in the dialogue with Islamic believers. «A proper process of canonization might be very difficult in the present circumstances,» Father Veilleux explained, «as no judicial investigation has determined the identity of the killers and their superiors with certainty, nor demonstrated to what degree the motives for the killing were explicitly religious.

«However, there is no doubt that their death was caused by their evangelical attitude. Although a purely political reading of their life and death would be a patent error, a strictly spiritual interpretation, which ignores the courage and clarity with which they remained involved in the Algerian situation, not only would be naive but would also empty their very message of meaning. Did not the same thing happen with Christ´s death?»

Father Paul Buetubela Balembo, rector of the Kinshasa Catholic Faculties, contended, «The causes of martyrdom in Africa are different, but can be summarized in the novelty of life brought by the proclamation of the Gospel. The preaching of the Good News always creates a contrast between what was before, and what is after: adherence to Christianity. This contrast, this clash, is not acceptable to nonbelievers, or to totalitarian and dictatorial powers.

«The Word of God cannot be proclaimed without taking risks. Thus, the martyr often lives his faith in contexts of hostility and opposition.»

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