The rapid escalation of violence over the last few weeks in the Central African Republic put the last stage of Pope Francis’ trip to Africa in doubt.
In the lead-up to the apostolic visit, to get a look at this war-torn country, and the Church there, ZENIT spoke with Bishop Juan Jose Aguirre of Bangassou.
ZENIT: Your Excellency, a few days are left before the Pope’s arrival. How is this expectation being lived in the country?
Bishop Aguirre: With great fervor and joy! In the first place, when in response to the Bishops’ invitation – in the course of their visit ad Limina last May — the Pope announced his visit to Central Africa, the astonishment and joy was infinite. When it was learned that Francis would come and spend the night at Bangui, the enthusiasm was exuberant. It convinced everyone that the Pope would sanctify this land with his presence where he would spend the night. Then, when violence appeared on the visit’s horizon and the situation became darker, we began to pray. Doubts emerged and, with them, nervousness. In the end, despite the violence and the risk of violent attacks, Pope Francis confirmed that he wanted to come. The whole of the Central African society, including the national government, is happy. Imagine that the violent, who are a handful, were very perturbed … Now, the preparation is frenetic and the expectations are enormous that all will go well. Everyone believes blindly that the Pope will give good reasons to begin again in Central Africa to live in a tolerant society, without vendettas and full of future.
ZENIT: What are the people’s expectations for the Holy Father’s visit? What could be the fruits of this trip?
Bishop Aguirre: The three-year violence that subsists in Central Africa has led to a blind alley. Homicides and vendettas: since the arrival of the Seleka in March of 2013, there has been nothing else. With the arrival of the anti-Balaka movement, on December 5, 2013, things worsened further. Homicides increased, violence has become gangrenous in the society, the cities are divided between Muslims and non-Muslims, and a spiral of violence has been inserted up to today. In the last month hundreds of deaths were counted and even more wounded in several cities. At this point, with the elections of this December compromised because of the constant violence, all of us believe that, if the Holy Father doesn’t resolve this situation, no one will. This is now the hope of the people. It is hoped that, with his words, his gestures and his way of relating to everyone, the society will quiet and a path will be delineated for the pursuit of peace.
ZENIT: There is no doubt that the Pope’s trip will give visibility to a “forgotten” nation by the media and might help the International Community to react. What is the most urgent necessity for the Central African Republic?
Bishop Aguirre: That persons have peace every day, bread every day and that the various ethnic communities are able to coexist in peace. It would be the best thing for Central Africa. Without peace and bread, everything gets notably complicated.
ZENIT: The Pope will spend less than 48 hours in the Central African Republic, but he will hold a series of important meetings: a visit to a refugee camp, a meeting with the Muslim community … Which do you believe will be the most significant moment of the trip?
Bishop Aguirre: Everything will be significant! A Pope’s visit doesn’t leave anyone indifferent, even if it is
ZENIT: The French army speaks of “high risk” for the Pontiff’s visit in this country. From your point of view, what is the present situation like?
Bishop Aguirre: If the French Ministry of Defense says this, it has its reasons. For the same reasons important soccer matches were cancelled in Europe. But Africans are of another metal. In several neighborhoods of Bangui, in the area of the Fatima parish, led by the Comboni Fathers, the situation is very tense. The parish is standing thanks to the support of three Fathers, with 3800 displaced and everything burnt around them, without life, destroyed. The Pope’s entourage will not go to those neighborhoods so as not to endanger all the Central African faithful that will follow him wherever he goes.
Bangui is a hornets’ nest. They can throw a grenade on the crowd as they did on November 4 at a university meeting, which, that time, didn’t explode. It was made in China. However, perhaps something will happen later. We spent one week at Bangassou together with 69 delegates from the parishes, preparing for this visit with prayer.
All this so that fear won’t be stronger than our hope. The illusion vanishes in the air. However, there is also fearful respect, because for one month the capital has been living a spiral of violence that 12,000 United Nations blue helmets and 900 French soldiers of Sangaris have been unable to stop.
The high risk denounced by the French has not decreased. Central Africa was disintegrated in three years. Red lines appeared everywhere, dividing Muslims from non-Muslims, fragmenting the capital. There is a sort of epidemic of violence, which generates the odor of a festering and tense society.
Pope Francis’ visit is lived as a process. The balance-sheet is of 120 dead and 300 wounded in the last weeks. His presence could stop all this criminal wild behavior. The formula is courage united to prudence, the gaze turned to the God of faith, in the strength demonstrated thousands of times by Jesus who “walked on the sea,” placating the furious waves that broke against the boat.
ZENIT: How can the Gospel of life be transmitted in a nation that suffers daily the consequences of violence?
Bishop Aguirre: With hope! When many others are in an atmosphere of great violence, the Church always stays; she is the last to turn off the light! We are here to make common cause with the poor. At Bangassou we take care of more than 1,000 orphans, run a center for the terminally sick with AIDS, four homes for the elderly accused of witchcraft, paediatrics, maternity, 20 schools and colleges, health centers … all this is, in my opinion, an injection of hope for a people tortured by the violence of a few. Here we also say that, when hope is lost … one waits to return to have hope.
ZENIT: You have been in the Central African Republic for 35 years. How has the situation changed in the course of the years?
Bishop Aguirre: Today I believe we are much worse than three years ago, when we were trampled by those horses of Attila disguised as the “Seleka coalition.” Today we are trampled by others, with different names. And I think that today Central Africa is worse than 35 years ago,
when I arrived. The quantity of the people’s suffering seems infinite. The neighboring countries think of Central Africans today as real predators. They are not interested in persons, in the common people, but only in their gold, oil and raw materials – the multi-nationals and the countries that control them more than ever. The UN has sent Moroccan, Congolese, Rwandan and Bangladeshi peace troops. Coming in, they say that they haven’t come to Central Africa to die. When they are in trouble, they are taken out of the midst
[Translation by ZENIT]