Since March 2013, when radical Islamic rebels—many of them foreign fighters—overthrew an already fragile and corrupt government, the Central African Republic has been in turmoil, with clashes between militant factions leaving hundreds of men, women and children dead. The violence reached its peak in late December and triggered the intervention of both French and African troops.
With Islamic radicals often targeting Christians and provoking revenge killings on the part of some Christians, the conflict has often been depicted as a clash of Islam and Christianity. However, with fighting continuing into late winter 2014, Catholic churches, convents and monasteries continue to offer refuge to both Christians and Muslims fleeing the civil war.
In these reflections, the Catholic archbishop of the capital city of Bangui considers the Church’s role in pulling the country back from the brink of utter destruction after a confrontation with what he acknowledged was the face of evil.
I went to Bouan, a town about 10 miles from Bouar. A swath of a neighborhood had been burned down. People had been set on fire as well, burned to death in their very homes. There were bones lying all around and people’s heads. I had never seen such a scene—not in our country; maybe in footage from Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, but not here. This was the first time I witnessed such carnage here. That day we were touched by evil. It was manifested in this desire to kill, to destroy, to cut people into pieces. This barbarism was the work of the devil.
How can a society touched by evil move forward? How can the people find reason to hope—and discover light amidst the darkness?
When a child is sick, the mother is sick as well. She wants her child to get better. I believe that since the Church in the Central African Republic is suffering, the universal Church is suffering as well; the universal Church is giving us support, so that our local Church can stand up again and find healing, eventually to bring about forgiveness as well as reconciliation.
We need men and women who are able to proclaim a message of reconciliation—to help quiet the voices of division, hatred, and vengeance. Those voices run counter to the Church’s fundamental message—we have to return to Christ Himself. Because Christ, before dying, offered forgiveness: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” To be able to forgive one’s enemy is not possible in strictly human terms—it is an act of faith. It is only with the power of great humility that we can offer this alternative. This, I am convinced, is the Church’s mission, especially and urgently today in the Central African Republic.
The Church needs men and women who can testify that peace is possible now; we need people who are committed firmly to peace-making—who by their sheer witness bring about peace. That is how we will recognize who are our friends; as it was said about Jesus’ followers: “See how they love one another.” Once peace returns to the heart of our community, the Church—witness of love—can help men and women rediscover Christ and help those of other faiths recognize or discover the integrity of our faith.
For many years, the people of the Central African Republic have lived in harmony; we have known brotherhood—this communion among communities. The upheaval and violence has brought division, death, suffering, the destruction of the other. Now the time has come to open our hearts more widely still, so that God can give us a new dynamism—fill up our hearts so that we will be able to offer our hand to others, in love, and to begin life together anew. In this moment, in the depth of our troubles, we, as Christians, cannot remain closed in upon ourselves. But only God can purify us and help us extend ourselves to others—yes, in the face of all the suffering.
It will be hard, it will be very difficult, especially those first steps. But we have to make our way toward others again. God is with us in this effort. In making this movement calmly and resolutely, God will transform me so that I can move with a lighter step and make my way to the other, even with a certain joyfulness. This will take time, days and months, but there is no alternative to opening ourselves up. Christ on the Cross had His arms open wide—inviting all of humankind. We are invited to draw strength from the heart of Christ. My role is to encourage all my people to proclaim: “let us all move toward Christ, it is there that we will find strength, nowhere else. Elsewhere, division and revenge rule the day. But Christ offers us an alternative: He proposes life—not death. This Lent, we can begin to rebuild the Central African Republic!”