It’s official, Pope Francis will visit the Central African Republic in November 2015, bringing a message of hope to a nation and people subject to extreme violence during almost two years of civil war.Thanks to the presence of 8,000 UN peacekeeping troops, some stability has returned to the country since last September. But the new calm is fragile, Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui, the country’s capital, told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need March 12, 2015.
Q. Has peace has returned to your homeland?
Archbishop Nzapalainga: No, sadly, not yet. But the peacekeeping troops have succeeded in bringing a measure of calm to our country. In Bangui, in particular, we hardly see any more armed fighters on the streets. I sometimes compare the Central African Republic with a sick man. The peace troops are like a doctor who has restored our country to the status of a convalescent. But I fear that violence will break out again when the UN troops leave. The withdrawal of the European peacekeeping troops–who restored order above all in the Muslim quarters of Bangui—is set to start March 15. I appeal to the world community to keep these troops here.
Q. What, in essence, lies at the root of the unrest that has so shaken the Central African Republic since 2012?
Archbishop Nzapalainga: The civil war has been a conflict between two rebel groups, the Seleka and the Anti-Balaka. Both sides have committed terrible crimes, have murdered, raped, destroyed churches and mosques, and entire villages. The [Muslim] Seleka rebels are above all mercenaries from Chad and Sudan.The Anti-Balaka fighters [largely Christian] are a popular movement that has developed in reaction to the attacks by the Seleka. It is not, however, a religious conflict: Not a single religious leader, Christian or Mulsim, has in any way been active among the warring factions. Christians and Muslim leaders have been united in their condemnation of the violence perpetrated by both sides, as well as in lobbying efforts to engage the international community to come to our aid.
Q. What is daily life like for the people of the Central African Republic?
Archbishop Nzapalainga: In Bangui alone there are around 30,000 people still living in refugee camps, at the airport, in various different Catholic churches and also in the central mosque. Around 8,000 people have sought shelter in the Catholic seminary, and another 4,000 or so in the monastery of the Carmelite Fathers. They are living in oppressive conditions. They are still deeply traumatized and fearful. Many cannot return home, because their houses been destroyed. The children cannot get to school, while for the men and women there is no work.
At the moment there is no possibility of free elections in our country. People are still too deeply fearful and there is still widespread mistrust. The first priority must be security, and the disarming of the rebels. The only answer to the violence is dialogue. And we need the world’s prayers.
Q. You have seen terrible suffering, and must yourself have sometimes feared for your life. How do you manage to retain your sense of hope?
Archbishop Nzapalainga: I am a Christian. And as a Christian I have hope. I like to compare hope with a pair of spectacles. Without these glasses of hope, everything is obscured. But with the glasses I can see things that others cannot see. And I can pass this hope on to others. As a bishop I am a guardian, who is supposed to watch over his flock—the people of God—and give them hope. And the people of God includes all people, not only Christians.
Q. In November Pope Francis will come to your country. What does this visit mean, for you and the people of Central African Republic?
Archbishop Nzapalainga: The papal visit is a sign of the goodness of God and a consolation. He is coming to us as a father – and precisely at a moment when we havejust been through a long crisis that has left deep scars. I am hoping that it will bring new strength to the people of the Central African Republic. The message of life that the Pope will bring with him is a message of peace and reconciliation. That’s precisely what our country so urgently needs.