Pope Francis will open the first Holy Door of the Jubilee of Mercy in Bangui on Nov. 29, during his pastoral visit to the Central African Republic.
Anticipating by some 10 days the jubilee’s official opening, the Year of Mercy will begin, therefore, in one of the most forgotten “peripheries” of the earth. A country in which, added to the ubiquitous misery, is the tragedy of a civil war and the complicity of the total indifference of the International Community.
In this disturbing scenario, the only true glimmer of hope is the Catholic Church and her courageous missionaries. One of them is Carmelite Father Aurelio Gazzera, 53, native of Cuneo.
Having worked in CAR for 24 years, Father Gazzera at present is the Director of Caritas of Bouar. The Piedmontese missionary described to ZENIT the country’s very delicate political situation, where, however, the Holy Father’s safety should not be at risk.
ZENIT: Father Aurelio, how is the Central African Republic preparing for Pope Francis’ visit?
Father Gazzera: Central Africa received with surprise and much joy the news of the Pope’s desire to come and visit. We are a large country, twice the size of Italy, but with only 4.5 million inhabitants, and, above all, at war for almost three years — first, the arrival of the Seleka, an alliance of rebels, the majority Muslim, from the North of the country, but also from Chad and from Sudan. Then the reaction, with the anti-Balaka, and the guerrilla that still continues now: there are close to 830,000 refugees and evacuees abroad (a fifth of the population!).
The preparation is in full swing in the heart of the Catholic community, with various meetings and organizations, and moments of prayer that are attempting to prepare Christians to receive Peter, and especially to question themselves on the faith and on the history of the country. Non-Catholics are also very happy about this visit, which the whole population regards as very important and, at the same time, exacting. As for the rest — many preparations aren’t seen, taking into account the fact that, since the end of September, the situation at Bangui is far worse.
ZENIT: The newspaper accounts these days speak of a heated political situation in the country. Do you think the Pope’s visit is at risk?
Father Gazzera: It certainly won’t be a stroll, and I imagine many are holding their breath … I don’t think the Pope is particularly exposed, because undoubtedly there will be a security force up to the situation. I am more concerned about the people that will come to see and hear him, who instead will be less protected and more vulnerable. Unfortunately, we have witnessed for a long time an escalation of violence and attacks; hence, nothing can be excluded. Moreover there is no coordination or unity within the various parties at war (Muslims and non-Muslims) and this is a further problem.
ZENIT: What significance do you attribute to the Holy Father’s decision to open the Holy Door in advance at Bangui?
Father Gazzera: It is exceptional news, which the Pope had already anticipated to us almost two months ago, sign that it is a personal decision. It is a most beautiful sign, which brings to the fore an unknown country, which is in great need of allowing itself to be converted through the Father’s Mercy. It is also a lovely sign of recognition of the Catholic Church, which has always been on the front line in welcoming all, Christians and Muslims, and that, thanks to the voice of many Pastors – first among all the Archbishop of Bangui, Monsignor Dieudonne Nzapalainga – represents practically the only bulwark to the folly of the war and of destruction.
ZENIT: Muslims are close to 15% in the country. What type of Islam is that of the Central African Republic?
Father Gazzera: Until the first arrival of the Seleka, coexistence was quite good. The Muslims were engaged in commerce, transport and a good part of stock farming, and in general the two communities complemented one another quite well. With the arrival of the Seleka, with rebels that almost only spoke Arabic, the situation was complicated: some Muslims benefited from the situation, others supported it openly, which, with the beginning of combats between Seleka and anti-Balaka, led to identifying the Seleka with the Muslims. Then one must not forget that a background of fear also existed, caused by historical events (the slave raids carried out by Muslim traders, here in the area; they lasted until 1930) and the recurring tensions, especially between farmers and breeders (the latter constituted rather by Peul, of Muslim religion.)
ZENIT: In the tragic context of the civil war, are there also factors connected with religious membership or is the conflict of an eminently political or tribal nature?
Father Gazzera: The religious question is very secondary. Although having talked to them for a long time, I have never heard the anti-Balaka take the religious factor as a pretext for the attacks against Muslims. Behind it, rather, is a sense of inferiority and a jealousy that has led to lootings and to the destruction of Muslims’ homes and goods. In addition, there is behind it the political factor (the hegemony of countries such as Chad, Sudan, and countries of the Arabian Gulf).