Church Is Willing to Broker Angola Peace

But Government Suspicion Remains, Bishop Says

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MALANJE, Angola, DEC. 15, 2000 (
The Catholic Church is willing to be a peace-broker in Angola´s decades-old civil war and is intent on reconciliation, but faces lingering suspicion from the government, the bishop of Malanje told Reuters.

«The Church´s intention is to promote peace and itself as an independent institution but we face serious constraints,» Bishop Luis María Pérez de Onraita told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.

«The Church has a certain power due to its relationship with the people and the government is not comfortable with this,» said Bishop de Onraita, who lives 425 kilometers (255 miles) by road east of the capital Luanda. But relations with the government have improved to «polite,» in contrast with the former Marxist era when the government was openly hostile and «the Church suffered many insults,» he said.

Luanda has been locked in a civil war with the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) led by veteran guerrilla Jonas Savimbi for 25 years, Reuters said.

About 1 million people have been killed in Africa´s longest running conflict and some 2.6 million have fled the fighting in the former Portuguese colony. About 38% of the 10.1 million people in this southern Africa country are Catholic.

The government-approved political version of UNITA, called UNITA Renovada, has seats in the national assembly. But Luanda refuses to negotiate with the more powerful rebels. Despite international sanctions, rebels still trade diamonds for arms. Lucrative offshore oil fields fuel Luanda´s war machine. Analysts say neither side can win, Reuters said.

«UNITA would like peace and reconciliation but on its own terms,» Bishop de Onraita told Reuters. «The government also wants dialogue but with UNITA Renovada only.» He added: «The war is with Savimbi, not Renovada, so dialogue and reconciliation has to be with him.»

Given UNITA´s capacity for violence, it was neither possible nor advisable for the church to initiate direct links with the rebels, the bishop said. «Such contacts could only be in the context of the process of peace and reconciliation,» he said.

Bishop de Onraita, a Spaniard who arrived in Angola in 1952 and in Malanje in 1996, witnessed the rebel shelling of Malanje in 1998 and has seen peace accords come and go.

A United Nations-backed peace deal in 1991 led to elections in 1992. But Savimbi rejected the outcome and returned to the bush to resume fighting. The latest peace agreement, the 1994 Lusaka Accord, was poorly implemented and fighting resumed in late 1998.

Since late 1999 the government has essentially wiped out UNITA´s ability to wage conventional war. But while the government controls the Atlantic coast and most major centers, it lacks control of large expanses of open territory and UNITA continues to launch unpredictable and widespread guerrilla attacks across the country.

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