The bishop who was set free

Editor’s Note: Kevin Clarke, senior editor and chief correspondent for America magazine, is reporting from Central African Republic and is touring programs operated by Catholic Relief Services. His blog posts are being published by Catholic News Service under a special arrangement with the magazine. This post was filed May 12.

By Kevin Clarke

“The general security situation in this country is awful,” says Bishop Nestor-Desire Nongo-Aziagbia of Bossangoa, Central African Republic.

“Terrible,” he adds, shaking his head sadly.

Bishop Nestor-Desire Nongo Aziagbia of Bossangoa, Central African Republic. (Courtesy of America magazine)

Bishop Nestor-Desire Nongo-Aziagbia of Bossangoa, Central African Republic. (Courtesy of America magazine)

Behind him, across the grounds of the archbishop’s residence in Bangui where he is visiting in early May, the Ubangi River drifts serenely between the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic as men in dugout canoes ferry people and products from one side to the other. This night in Bangui would probably be little different from many of the others in recent weeks. The overall level of violence has declined a great deal since anti-Balaka and Seleka forces were in open combat in February and March, but each day brings new outrages against some unfortunate Christian or Muslim man from one side or the other and a new round of reprisal attacks.

Sadly, the bishop has had firsthand experience with just how awful the security situation in Central Africa can be. He has personally survived a kidnapping attempt that appeared to be on its way to a summary execution. Bishop Nongo-Aziagbia considers himself fortunate to have “national or international status.”

“People organized at the national level [and] at the international level for my freedom. Many people in this country wouldn’t have the same chance and their deaths would have passed unknown to everybody.”

Traveling northeast, 215 kilometers from Bossangoa to Our Lady of Conception Church at Bantangafo, on April 16, the bishop planned to restore its priests and observe Holy Thursday with the community. Instead he was seized at a roadblock manned by Seleka rebels.

Read more here.

Sowing survival in Central African Republic

Editor’s Note: Kevin Clarke, senior editor and chief correspondent for America magazine, is reporting from Central African Republic and is touring programs operated by Catholic Relief Services. His blog posts are being published by Catholic News Service under a special arrangement with the magazine. This post was filed May 8.

By Kevin Clarke

BOSSANGOA, Central African Republic — The truck lurches and weaves with every rut and gully — and there are many of them on the bush trail — in slow, but steady progress through to the outlying. The day before, two large lorries broke down repeatedly during the same exercise through these small villages that surround this northern Central African Republic city, and this morning an adroit mechanic cannibalized parts from a third vehicle to ensure that the others would make it into the bush and back again. The cargo it carries each patient kilometer, corn and peanut seed meant to salvage the growing season, is a precious, life-saving weight.

Tents for displaced people are seen on the grounds of St. Anthony of Padua Cathedral in Bossangoa, Central African Republic, Nov. 25, 2013. (CNS/Reuters)

Tents for displaced people are seen on the grounds of St. Anthony of Padua Cathedral in Bossangoa, Central African Republic, Nov. 25, 2013. (CNS/Reuters)

“We could be looking at a famine in the Central African Republic in August,” says Kyla Neilan, a program manager for Catholic Relief Services based in Bossangoa, a community hard-hit by the months of disorder and communal violence in the country. “It’s make or break this harvest season. If people have food to eat in August, they can start to recover. If people don’t have seeds in the ground now, and they have no crop in August … people will start to die.”

The church’s international relief and development agencies, Catholic Relief Service/Caritas, aim to get seed along with cultivation tools to as many as 10,000 families in the subsistence farming villages that surround Bossangoa. There is no small amount of haste to these efforts, and each day that a truck breaks down and reduces the reach of the relief agencies is a frustrating worry. They have to get seed and tools to all these families by the end of May. The rainy season has already begun; soon these hard, copper-colored trails will become essentially impassable, red mud that will leave truck wheels spinning futilely. By then it will be too late to sow.

The hunger is already upon these villagers. In nearby Bamzenbe, Doctors Without Borders is treating children suffering from acute malnutrition or opportunistic infections that their hungry bodies are too weak to resist, Neilan reports. People are languishing without the strength to plant crops or find work because of malnutrition.

Read more here.

 

In Bangui, an evening with the general

Editor’s Note: Kevin Clarke, senior editor and chief correspondent for America magazine, is reporting from Central African Republic and is touring programs operated by Catholic Relief Services. His blog posts are being published by Catholic News Service under a special arrangement with the magazine. This post was written May 7.

By Kevin Clarke

BANGUI, Central African Republic — Coming from such a large and imposing figure, the soft voice of the general is a surprise. One has to lean in and listen closely to hear Mohamed-Moussa Dhaffane speak, sharing the high drama of the moment in something close to a whisper.

As acting president of Seleka in the Central African Republic and a former minister of water and forests for the ousted government, Dhaffane still haunts the capital, Bangui, in discussions with local government officials, NGO leaders and representatives of the international community.

His life is essentially in mortal peril each day as he makes his rounds for dialogue and courtesy calls. Many have urged him to leave Bangui for his own safety; his family has already fled the country entirely. But Dhaffane is determined to remain in the capital.

“Leaders should stop saying one thing and then doing something else,” says the general. “When I told the Muslims to turn back, I continued to stay myself in Bangui despite all the risks I am running.”

People hide from gunfire near a church during a Feb. 18 firefight between African peacekeepers and fighters from the Anti-Balaka militia in Bangui, Central African Republic.  (CNS/Reuters)

People hide from gunfire near a church during a Feb. 18 firefight between African peacekeepers and fighters from the Anti-Balaka militia in Bangui, Central African Republic. (CNS/Reuters)

He travels with two stone-faced Seleka guards in crisp jungle camouflage uniforms and AK-47s slung from their shoulders. The general says he keeps his own “Kalashnikov” with him in the car as the small squad moves across Bangui’s sometimes invisible and sometimes thoroughly barricaded borders, demarcations of districts no Muslim is safe to pass.

Despite the clear divisions that have erupted between the nation’s Christians and Muslims because of the conflict, Dhaffane echoes Christian leaders of Bangui in insisting that the struggle “is not religious, though politicians are trying to manipulate this as a religious conflict.”

“But if we are not careful it could become a religious conflict,” he quickly adds.

Of the state of the nation now, he says, reconciliation is still possible. “The situation is difficult, but we are allowed to hope.

“We can fix the problem quickly with the engagement of all religious leaders,” he says. “Let’s separate religions from the movements. Let’s put religions aside and have Seleka and anti-Balaka talk together because, in reality, Islam does not encourage people to go and kill civilians, and Islam does not encourage people to loot houses — it’s not in the Quran or in the words of the prophet. And in reality the Bible and the life of Jesus do not encourage people to eat the flesh of others and to kill others. When Jesus took the wine and said, ‘This is my blood,’ it was a symbol meant to unify people.

“What anti-Balaka has done is not in the Christian religion,” he says, “and what Seleka has done is not in Islam.

“Reconciliation is possible if the religious leaders are consistent in saying Seleka is one thing; Islam is something else. Anti-Balaka is one thing; Christianity is something else.”

Read more about this interview here.

Excitement builds in Malawi for new Jesuit secondary school

Students from St. Joseph Primary School in Kasungu, Malawi  cheer for the construction of Loyola Jesuit Secondary School, during a recent visit. (CNS/Courtesy Loyola Jesuit Secondary School)

Students from St. Joseph Primary School in Kasungu, Malawi, cheer for the construction of Loyola Jesuit Secondary School, during a recent visit. (CNS/Courtesy Loyola Jesuit Secondary School)

Students in Malawi soon will be able to continue their education in a Jesuit secondary school.

Loyola Jesuit Secondary School in the rural community of Kasungu is nearing completion. Father Peter Henriot, an American Jesuit, tells Catholic News Service the school will welcome its first 125 students in September.

He said excitement is building in the community, population 60,000 about 75 miles from the capital of Lilongwe, as construction enters its final phase on the boarding school that will enroll boys and girls.

While the Malawi government acknowledges the importance of education, few students go on to secondary school. Statistically, less than 25 percent of boys and less than 20 percent of girls continue their education after eighth grade.

“You don’t have development unless you are educating the youth. Education is key, and education in a poor rural area is important. And you don’t have justice unless you are educating the girls,” Father Henriot said.

Joining the Jesuits in the project are the country’s bishops and Malawi’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.

By opening the school the Jesuits in the order’s Zambia-Malawi province want to improve access to education for teenage students in what is one of the world’s poorest and most densely populated nations. Through education, the economy can diversify, and the dire poverty that afflicts the overwhelming majority of Malawi’s 15 million residents can be eased.

“We use the expression ‘It’s an option for the poor,’” Father Henriot said.

Because the school is a grant-aided institution, the Malawian government will pay the salaries of teachers. That leaves the school to raise money for necessities such as books, desks, equipment and technology. Tuition is set at $400 per year. Plans call for financial assistance to be provided to students whose family cannot afford tuition.

Jesuit Father Peter Henriot

Jesuit Father Peter Henriot

Father Henriot said an additional 125 students will be enrolled annually, bringing total enrollment to about 500 students in September 2018. Students will come from throughout Malawi.

He said the site was chosen because of its location — near the Jesuit-run St. Joseph Parish — and the availability of the land, which tribal leaders readily allowed the congregation to use.

Raising funds for the project is Father Henriot’s job. He works alongside Jesuit Father Alojz Podgrajsek, project manager.

The first phase of construction will cost about $9.5 million. Furnishings and equipment will cost another $2.5 million

Plans call for a second round of construction to begin in 2015. That will include more dormitories, a chapel, health clinic and larger library. Father Henriot said he hopes the entire project will be finished by the time for the first graduation ceremony in 2018.

The Jesuits also are looking to buy a 125-acre farm about four miles from the school. Father Henriot said the farm will provide food for the school and income from surplus crops, employ local residents and allow students to “get their hands dirty learning about agriculture.”

Vatican II fathers OK’d languages people use daily

The first session of the Second Vatican Council ended Dec. 8, 1962, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, with a closing Mass and speech by Pope John XXIII. You read the speech and the CNS report on the closing congregation of the first session at our council daybook blog, Vatican II: 50 Years Ago Today.

What may surprise you is that one of the very first actions of the council fathers was to approve the use of the vernacular in Latin-rite liturgies. This surprised many Catholic around the world, too, because of the speed with which the fathers made this change. It seemed like overnight, the exclusive use of Latin in the Western rites had been supplanted with the languages people actually used in their daily lives.

Two of the entries in the blog discuss this change. One is the article explaining the approval; the other is a very good analysis by one of the council periti or experts in sacred liturgy, Benedictine Father Cipriano Vagaggini, who died in 1999.

A woman uses a hand missal in Swahili during a Mass in Kenya. (CNS Photo/Nancy Wiechec)

A woman uses a hand missal in Swahili during a Mass in Kenya. (CNS Photo/Nancy Wiechec)

As Father Vagaggini noted in his article, the approval did not spring like Athena from the head of Zeus, from the minds of the council father or Pope John. Liturgical reform had been well under way for almost 50 years by the time the council had begun. Missionaries had been pressing for the use of the vernacular for many years, especially in Asia and Africa, since Latin had almost no resonance with people on those continents.

The Benedictines were among the most prominent of the liturgical reformers of the first part of the 20th century. Nowhere was liturgical reform more studied in North America than St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., with its renowned School of Theology and Seminary. Today St. John’s is home to Liturgical Press, a pioneering publisher of liturgical resources since 1926.

Saving Ugandan children’s lives has not gone unnoticed

Archbishop John Baptist Odama in an interview with Catholic News Service in 2009. (CNS/Bob Roller)

Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, Uganda, has spent much of his public ministry over the last 13 years saving the lives of thousands of children at risk of war and violence.

He has advocated for the kids to world leaders, acted as a human shield in war-torn areas of northern Uganda, called for negotiations with rebels and reached across religious and ethnic lines to organize peace initiatives to teach the way of nonviolence in the face of atrocities.

His work has not gone unnoticed.

World Vision presented Archbishop Odama with its 2012 International Peace Prize in Gulu Sept. 21, the International Day of Peace.

The award recognizes peace-builders who work without much fanfare in forgotten areas of the world.

Archbishop Odama promised to work for peace, especially on behalf of children, during his installation in 1999 as leader of the Gulu Archdiocese.

I have had the opportunity to interview Archbishop Odama twice during my career: once during a visit to St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in the Cleveland Diocese several years ago and in 2009 at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington.

During both interviews it was readily apparent that Archbishop Odama’s desire for peace consumed his spirit. It was the children who were his utmost concern because they were the most at risk in the face of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army led by John Kony.

Since forming in 1987 the LRA has forced as many as 100,000 children to join their ranks and participate in vicious raids on villages across central Africa. Girls often were taken as sex slaves for Kony and his lieutenants.

Archbishop Odama has placed his life at risk by venturing into remote regions of Uganda and Congo to meet with the LRA. In doing so he secured agreements to stop the attacks on innocent victims.

His most impassioned plea, though, was made to the U.S. and other governments: End the flow of arms into the region. Without armaments, he said, the region’s violence would diminish and people could once again live in peace and without fear.

For the time being Kony’s forces are out of Uganda, but have not disappeared altogether. Archbishop Odama continues to organize people, on faith-based grounds, to resist the violence through nonviolent means.

At last week’s award ceremony he repeated his desire “to always be consumed in the struggle for promoting peace.”

“My wish for peace is not only for this area, it is for the whole country of Uganda and also for the continent,” he said, according to information received from World Vision. “I consistently refer to other areas which are affected by war, to my people. Let us be in solidarity with them. We pray for them, we keep asking that God inspires people who will bring peace in those areas.”

May peace be with you, archbishop.

US priest issues plea for cultural sensitivity

An interior view Sept. 12 shows damage to the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the previous day U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other embassy staff were killed in a rocket attack on their car by protesters angry over a film that ridiculed Islam’s prophet Mohammed. (CNS photo/Esam Al-Fetori, Reuters)

Since 1977, Maryknoll Father Doug May has spent 20 years in the Middle East — primarily Egypt. So when protests over an anti-Muslim film heated up in Cairo and other cities, he tried to help Americans balance freedom of speech with an understanding of what it means to Muslims to depict the prophet Mohammed.

“Mohammed in Islam is forbidden to be ‘imaged’ in any way except with his face covered, so adverse are Muslims to any image of God or any person for fear that the image itself might be worshipped,” he wrote in an article for Arab West Report.

“In our world of ‘political correctness,’ it is generally no longer acceptable to make fun of or ridicule: people of color, women, gays, Jews, Catholics, Hispanics, Poles, Italians, Germans, etc. Yet it is still ‘open season’ to depict Arabs as ‘rag heads’ and Muslims as ‘terrorists,’” he wrote.

“Cultural sensitivity must include religious and social sensitivity,” he added.

I met Father May at the Maryknoll house in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2011. He combines a sense of humor and pragmatism with a deep love of Egypt and its people. One paragraph in his essay reflects those attributes:

“Before coming to the Arab-Muslim world for the first time in 1977, could I laugh at this film, watching Mohammed look like a fool? Probably yes, just as I laughed at Jesus and John the Baptist in ‘The Life of Brian.’ However, as a priest, would I feel free to ‘juggle’ the Body and Blood of Christ at the altar during Mass as if I were performing in a circus act? NO! It just isn’t done! If I was short of toilet paper, would I resort to tearing out pages of the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures in a time of need? NO! It just isn’t done. So, is burning the Quran, desecrating the Quran and insulting Mohammed OK? NO! It just isn’t done by anyone who is aware and sensitive to Muslims and respectful of Islam.”

Father May said that, in the interest of freedom of speech, he would defend the “theoretical right” of someone to make the film, but he said depicting “Mohammed as a sex-crazed simpleton” was “a classic example of going too far while hiding behind the concept of freedom of speech and hiding under the rock of unadulterated bigotry.” He said it also places local Christians in the terrible situation of “guilt by association.”

“If motive and premeditation can be proven, I would challenge the U.S. government to arrest and convict the makers and distributors of this film,” he said. “I would suggest that Muslims, along with moderate Christians and Jews, take the filmmakers and distributors to court and sue them for ‘inciting violence’ if such a cause exists in civil law.”

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