Jerusalem, Israel, May 21, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
As the Holy Land prepares for the visit of Pope Francis, Catholic seminarians are praying for the visit's success and preparing with great anticipation to assist in a papal Mass.
“Everywhere, in the Holy Land, people are praying for Pope Francis,” Joseph Sweiss, a Catholic seminarian from the area of Amman, Jordan, told Aid to the Church in Need.
“We are so greatly looking forward to welcoming him. We Christians are only a small minority here in the Holy Land. Hence it is important to know that the Pope is thinking of us.”
Pope Francis will visit the Holy Land and Jordan May 24-26. He will celebrate Sunday Mass in Bethlehem's Manger Square on May 25.
Sweiss, a seminary student at Beit Jala near Bethlehem, said that Pope Francis is “a real model of the priesthood” and “gives the example of a good shepherd.”
“He will teach us how to live in respect and peace with others, how to be the salt of the earth."
Salam Haddad, another Jordanian seminarian in his third year of theology studies for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said that the Pope is “greatly loved” in the Holy Land.
“I am looking forward to the privilege of soon being close to him as an altar server,” Haddad said. “One cannot not be thrilled at the prospect of meeting him and serving with him at the altar. This is a blessing, especially with this Pope whom the whole world admires.”
At the urging of Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem, the Beit Jala seminarians have spent several months praying the Rosary for the success of Pope Francis’ visit.
Haddad and eleven other students at the seminary will be altar servers during Pope Francis' Mass in Bethlehem.
Latin Patriarchate auxiliary bishop Giacinto Boulos Marcuzzo, the vicar general and representative of the Latin Patriarch in Israel, was himself a seminarian during Pope Paul VI's eventful 1964 Holy Land visit.
The Italian-born bishop, a Nazareth resident, told Aid to the Church In Need that Paul VI's visit to Jerusalem came on “a bitterly cold January day” with “icy” wind.
“But that didn't bother us in the least, since we were so full of joyful anticipation,” said Bishop Marcuzzo, who was tasked with carrying the processional cross through the Old City to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during the papal visit 50 years ago.
“Jerusalem had been waiting for three hours for the arrival of the Pope. It was already growing dark, and Pope Paul VI was considerably delayed. We waited for him at the Damascus Gate,” the bishop recounted.
“Eventually, he arrived. The jubilation was really indescribable. Everybody, regardless of whether they were Christian or Muslim, rejoiced immensely at his arrival.”
While the police had prepared for an orderly procession, that did not happen.
“Suddenly, chaos broke out. But not from ill will, but from joy. Everybody wanted to see the Pope and touch him. The planned, orderly procession fell apart. I was walking ahead, but at some point I turned round to see where the Pope was,” he said, telling of the complete confusion that resulted.
Cardinals were completely overwhelmed with the density of the crowds and the Pope was “literally being suffocated by the mass of people.”
The Pope was taken to the nearby convent of the Little Sisters of the Poor to recover for at least 45 minutes before resuming the trek to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he celebrated Mass.
Bishop Marcuzzo said Paul VI’s celebration of Mass made him realize he was “a man of faith and prayer.”
“He appeared quite unconcerned by all the turmoil around him. The most important thing was the encounter with Jesus,” the bishop said, adding that the experience still influences him today.
Dodoma, Tanzania, May 21, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Members of the small Christian minority on the Tanzanian islands of Zanzibar are suffering intimidation and now fear that their children will be coerced to convert to Islam, one resident said.
“If we go to church on Sunday, we have to go through a crowd of people who often try to intimidate us,” a Catholic man speaking under the pseudonym Matthew Limo told the Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need.
The houses around Limo’s church belong to Muslims.
“They often shout that we are fools to go to church or that our women are naked. In fact, the Muslim women are all covered from head to toe,” he said.
Limo said that he personally does not feel intimidated, though he noted that many of the harassers’ comments are “directed towards women and children.”
His parish has about 400 members, though only 200 regularly go to Mass. About 98 percent of the Zanzibar archipelago residents are Muslim.
Limo voiced concern about his children’s future.
“At home we try to encourage and to teach them a love for Christ and the Church. But we are insecure about what others do,” he said. “We often hear stories about Muslims trying to convert children. Sadly enough we need to tell our children to be careful in building friendships with Muslim children.”
A trend of violent attacks on churches and individual Christians began on the Zanzibar islands in December 2012.
Father Evarist Muchi, a 55-year-old Catholic priest, was shot to death when his car arrived at the entrance of St. Joseph’s Cathedral for Sunday Mass. A Protestant minister has also been killed.
Father Ambrose Mkenda suffered serious injuries in another attack, Aid to the Church in Need reports.
The perpetrators have not been caught and many local Christians say local police have at times obstructed the investigation and distorted evidence.
Limo said the perpetrators are not outsiders but locals who have been “radicalized.” He said they have been trained by the Somalia-based terrorist group Al-Shabab. He said the organization is linked to the religious group Uamsho, which aims to establish an independent Islamic state in Zanzibar.
While Limo said he feels generally safe to leave home and to travel, he added that the atmosphere can become “explosive” in election years.
“On the street, people try to embarrass you or to make you angry. In periods like that I come home early and do not go out in the evening.”
The next election will take place in 2015.
Some anti-Christian violence has also taken place on the Tanzanian mainland. In May 2013 an attack on a newly opened Catholic parish killed three and injured 60. Two Tanzanians and four Saudi nationals were arrested for the attack.
In February 2014, Bishop Bernardin Mfumbusa of Tanzania’s north-central Diocese of Kondoa blamed the violence on the “infiltration of foreign Jihadis” and the return of native-born Muslims who had been radicalized abroad.
The bishop told Aid to the Church in Need that most Tanzanians of different religions live together well. He noted that Christian-Muslim tension in Zanzibar is “not new,” though he said the “vast majority” of people on Zanzibar would prefer to live in peace.
Vatican City, May 21, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, has emphasized that the next synod will not be focused exclusively on the much-talked about issue of Communion for the divorced and remarried.
“I would like to remind you that the next assembly of the synod of bishops is titled ‘the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.’ So the synod will deal with the family in its various aspects – not with a single issue,” the cardinal said in a May 20 email interview with CNA.
“In my view, a good service for people would be that of giving each issue regarding the family the same ‘space’ for discussion.”
The year leading up to the Oct. 5-19 synod on the family has been marked by media speculation that it will be dedicated to discovering a “pastoral solution” allowing for the admittance of persons who are divorced and civilly remarried, while their spouse is still living, to Communion, while also preserving Catholic teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.
“Regarding the possibility for the synod of bishops of changing the doctrine of the Church,” Cardinal Baldisseri said, “I underscore that the First Vatican Council’s document ‘Dei Filius’ affirmed that ‘understanding of its sacred dogmas must be perpetually retained, which Holy Mother Church has once declared; and there must never be recession from that meaning under the specious name of a deeper understanding.’”
The cardinal then continued: “And I also remind you that John XXIII said in the inaugural speech of the Second Vatican Council that ‘authentic doctrine … should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.’”
While comments from a number of German bishops have sparked a media frenzy and calls for the Church to change its teachings on Communion for the divorced and remarried, the synod of bishops is intended to reflect the collegiality of the universal Church.
In parts of Africa, polygamy has been a concern for the Church, with the Kenyan president recently signing a law legalizing the practice, which was already part of the customary law of some peoples. Other concerns from across the globe include the practices of cohabitation and contraception, forced marriages, a lack of adequate marriage preparation and Catholic education of children.
Cardinal Baldisseri discussed the various aspects facing families and evangelization – and the importance of giving them “the same ‘space’ for discussion” in the context of a preparatory document of an advisory nature sent to bishops around the world.
“This is what we have done, and in fact the preparatory document of the synod includes an 8-point questionnaire.”
The eight points in the questionnaire “deal broadly with the theme of family,” he said. “First, the beauty and values of the family, which is the union of a man and a woman willing to have children. The other kind of ‘unions’ are described as a social phenomenon, currently particularly strong, especially in the Western world. We should attentively look at this phenomenon for the Church’s pastoral purpose.”
“The issue of cohabitation, unmarried couples, same-sex marriages emerge,” he added. “There are also topics dealing with the knowledge, and the reception, of the teaching of the Church on the family; with natural law … with difficult family situations, dealing with separated couples, the divorced, and the divorced and remarried; and above all dealing with the children who are subjected to these situations, and their Christian education.”
The synod of bishops, which acts as an advisory body to the Pope, was established by Paul VI in 1965 by the motu proprio ‘Apostolica sollicitudo’ to “strengthen (the Pope's) union” with other bishops and to “establish even closer ties” with them.
The synod consists of a group of bishops from around the world who meet at fixed times “to foster closer unity between the Roman Pontiff and bishops, to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel … and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world,” according to canon law.
A synod’s conclusions are typically presented in the form of an apostolic exhortation issued by the Pope.
Cardinal Baldisseri noted that 2015 “will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the synod of bishops; so the synod has already paved a long road.”
He noted that “the synod acts under a regulation called the Ordo Synodi Episcoporum.”
The document was issued by Benedict XVI in 2006 to update previous rules with current canon law.
“According to the Ordo, there can be ordinary, extraordinary, and special assemblies (of the synod). Its main goal is the exercise of collegiality ‘sub Petro et cum Petro,’ i.e. assisting the Pope in his capacity as universal shepherd of the Church.”
Cardinal Baldisseri noted that “Pope Francis wanted to reinforce the synod by elevating the under-secretary to the rank of bishop, in order to further show the ‘solicitude of the Churches’ for each and every bishop in the Church.”
The synod’s under-secretary, Fr. Fabio Fabene, was appointed Feb. 8, and will be consecrated a bishop May 30.
“The synod of bishops is therefore the highest tool of collegiality, after an ecumenical council.”
The synod has met periodically since its establishment, often every few years. The last synod met in October, 2012, and was concerned with the new evangelization.
Vatican City, May 21, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
During his general audience address Pope Francis spoke on the Holy Spirit’s gift of knowledge, explaining that it enlightens our human perspective and helps us to see God in the whole of creation.
“The gift of knowledge puts us in tune with God’s gaze on things and on people” the Pope reflected in his May 21 weekly general audience, continuing his catechesis on the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
“Through this spiritual gift, we are enabled to see every person, and the world around us, in the light of God’s loving plan.”
Addressing the thousands gathered in St. Peter’s Square, the Roman Pontiff noted that “This knowledge does not limit itself to the human knowledge of nature,” but instead “allows us to perceive the greatness of God and his love for his creatures” through creation.
“In a sense, we see the beauty, harmony and goodness of all creation with the eyes of God its maker” he continued, observing that “As is clear from the lives of Saint Francis of Assisi and so many other saints, the gift of knowledge gives rise to grateful contemplation of the world of nature and joyful praise of the Creator.”
Noting how “the beauty and immensity of creation speaks to us of the Creator and invites us to worship him,” the Pope drew attention to the bible’s account of creation in Genesis, saying that it “underscores that God himself was happy with his work: all was good and man was ‘very good.’”
This gift, he went on, teaches us to “exercise wise stewardship” over our resources “for the benefit of the whole human family.”
He then described how the gift of knowledge also “prevents us from restricting our vision to the persons and things of this world alone, forgetting that in their order, value and beauty they point beyond themselves to God,” who is “their source and ultimate end.”
Seeing with the vision of God, he explained, is “A kind and respectful gaze that warns us of the danger of believing we are the total owners of creation, disposing of it as we like and without limits.”
“Creation is not our property, and much less of just a few. It is rather a gift that God has given us so that we take care of it and use it with respect for the benefit of all.”
Bringing his reflections to a close, the Roman Pontiff encouraged those present to ask the Holy Spirit “to help us grow in the knowledge which enables us to perceive the love with which God guides the world, to respond with gratitude and to praise him for his infinite goodness and love.”
“May we see everything around us as God's work, and our fellow men as brothers and sisters.”
Speaking of his upcoming trip to the Holy Land, Pope Francis noted how "this Saturday, I will travel to the Holy Land, the Land of Jesus."
"It will be a strictly religious trip" he explained, stating that "in first place I will meet my brother Bartholomew the First, as a homage for the 50th anniversary of the encounter between Paul VI and Athenagoras I."
"Peter and Andrew will meet again and this is beautiful! The second reason for this trip is to pray for peace on this Land that suffers so much. I ask you to pray for this trip."
Following his address Pope Francis made a series of appeals, asking attendees to pray for victims of the floods ravishing the Balkans, for Catholics in China and for the first-ever Burmese native who be beatified Saturday, May 31, in Aversa, Italy.
“My thoughts go out again to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, who have been hard hit by floods, with subsequent loss of life, numerous people displaced and extensive damage,” he stated.
“Unfortunately, the situation has worsened, so I invite you to join me in prayer for the victims and all those who are suffering from this calamity. Let our solidarity and the concrete support of the international community not be lacking to these our brothers and sisters.”
Going on, the Pope noted that May 24 marks the celebration of the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary Help of Christians, “who is venerated with great devotion at the Shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai.”
“I ask all the faithful to pray that, under the protection of the Mother Help of Christians, Catholics in China continue to believe, to hope, to love and to be, in all circumstances, a leaven of harmonious coexistence among their fellow citizens.”
Finally the Bishop of Rome spoke of the upcoming beatification of Fr. Mario Vergara and the lay catechist Isidore Ngei Ko Lat who were killed in 1950 in Burma, out of hatred for the Christian faith.
The pontiff prayed that “their heroic fidelity to Christ be an encouragement and example to missionaries,” especially “catechists in mission lands who carry out important and irreplaceable Apostolic work, for which the whole Church is grateful.”
Vatican City, May 21, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
In comments made to CNA, the Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See noted that the presence of both a rabbi and a Muslim in the Pope’s delegation to the Holy Land is a milestone in interreligious relations.
“For the first time in history Rabbi Skorka from Argentina, who is a friend of Pope Francis, will accompany him but also a Muslim religious leader, Imam Abbud, also from Argentina,” Dr. Zion Evrony told CNA May 20.
“It is significant in the sense of interreligious dialogue. The leader of over 1 billion Catholics is visiting the Holy Land together with a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim religious leader, so certainly this brings a message of the importance of interreligious dialogue.”
Rabbi Abraham Skorka is the former rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, and Sheik Omar Abboud is the former secretary-general of the Islamic Center of Argentina. Both men collaborated closely with the Pope while he was still a cardinal in Buenos Aires.
Along with the ambassador, they will accompany Pope Francis everywhere he goes during his May 24 – 26 pilgrimage to Jordan, Israel and Palestine.
The fact that for the first time in history leaders of other faith traditions will be part of a papal delegation also promotes a message of peace the ambassador observed, stating that “The Pope is a man of peace, and he will bring with him a message of peace.”
“Religious leaders, spiritual leaders can sometimes ease a tension between two sides of a conflict. They can create more trust and build more bridges to peace” he noted.
“The message of peace that Pope Francis will bring will certainly have an impact on the atmosphere in the region.”
Going on, Dr. Evrony stated that the trip will be “very significant” and of “historic importance, both for the relations between Israel and the Holy See and also for the relations between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church.”
“I’m sure that this visit will strengthen the relations” he affirmed, observing how the Pope’s Holy Land pilgrimage marks the pontiff’s first official trip outside of Italy, as his 2013 visit to Rio de Janeiro was organized by retired pontiff Benedict XVI.
Reflecting on the many crucial events to take place during the pilgrimage, the ambassador drew specific attention to Pope Francis’ encounter with the patriarch of Constantinople, Bartolomeo I, which is slated to take place Sunday.
“From the Vatican point of view” it is “the main purpose of this visit,” he explained.
In addition to their encounter, which marks the 50th anniversary of the 1964 meeting between Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, other significant events in Israel will be the pontiff’s meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres, their Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and two chief rabbis, he noted.
Although “this is a pilgrimage to the holy sites and strengthening the Christian community,” Dr. Evrony explained that Pope Francis’ scheduled visits to the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial and to Mount Herzl, where he will lay a wreath on the tomb of Theodore Herzl, founder of Zionism, are also of great interreligious importance.
“There is much anticipation and excitement in Israel for the visit of Pope Francis,” the ambassador observed, adding that “Israel is, regardless of the religious affiliation, expecting the visit of the Pope.”
“He will be welcomed very warmly, with an open heart as a very honored guest of the State of Israel.”
Everyone is very “optimistic” about the outcome of the Pope’s trip, Dr. Evrony stated, noting that it is “a historic visit that will be another milestone in the relations between Israel and the Holy See and between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.”
Alan Holdren contributed to this piece.
Amman, Jordan, May 21, 2014 (CNA) -
Some 1400 boys and girls from Jordan will receive First Communion during the Mass Pope Francis will celebrate on the first day of his trip to the Holy Land at the Amman International Stadium.
“The preparation for the celebration, which began four months ago, has involved the parents of the children, with catechism classes taught each Friday by priests, religious, catechists and religion teachers,” said Father Rifat Bader of the Catholic Center for Studies and Media, official spokesman for the Holy Father's Visit to Jordan.
“The boys and girls, dressed in white, will remain in their places after the consecration of the Eucharist and bishops and priests will administer First Communion to them,” he told Fides News Agency.
The 50,000 tickets to the May 24 Mass are being distributed at parishes in Jordan, while nearly 500 young people will serve as volunteers to help with logistics during the celebration.
Pope Francis will visit the Holy Land and Jordan May 24-26. The Pope announced the trip in January, saying its principal goal will be “to commemorate the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras I” that occurred 50 years ago.
In January 1964, Pope Paul VI traveled to the Holy Land. He met with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople on the Mount of Olives on January 5.
This historic meeting led to an improved relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, including a momentous joint declaration issued in 1965, in which both leaders expressed their desire “to overcome their differences in order to be again ‘one’ as the Lord Jesus asked of his Father for them.”
Rome, Italy, May 21, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
The French-founded Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools have elected Brother Robert Schieler, an American with extensive education experience, as their new superior general.
“I am humbled by this great challenge the brothers have given me, to be able to follow in the footsteps of our holy founder St. La Salle,” Br. Schieler said in a video message after his election.
“I know that anything that can be accomplished will be done only because of the great Lasallian family that we are all a part of,” he continued.
He stressed the need to respond to the needs of the world, especially the needs of the young people and of the poor who are “in great need of an education.”
The election took place May 20 at the religious institute’s 45th general chapter in Rome. Br. Schieler becomes the Lasallian Brothers’ 27th superior general of the institute founded by St. John Baptist de La Salle in the late 17th century.
The Lasallian Brothers are the largest order of religious brothers dedicated to education in the Catholic Church.
Br. Schieler was born in Philadelphia in 1950. He first met the Christian brothers as a student at Philadelphia’s West Catholic Boys High School, now known as West Catholic Preparatory High School. He joined the Lasallian Brothers in September 1969 and made his final profession in 1979, the Lasallian Brothers’ North American region reports.
The new superior general holds a master’s degree in European history from the University of Notre Dame, a master’s degree in Asian studies from the University of the Philippines, and a doctorate in educational administration from the University of Pennsylvania.
He graduated from Philadelphia’s La Salle College, which has since become a university. He sits on the university’s board of trustees. He is also on the board of St. Mary’s University of Minnesota and on the board of Bethlehem University in Palestine.
Brother Schieler served as a teacher in the U.S. and spent more than ten years as a missionary in the Philippines. He has served in school administration in positions including assistant principal and superintendent.
For the last seven years, he has been general councilor for the Lasallians’ North American region.
Br. Schieler is the third American to serve as the Lasallian Brothers’ superior general. He succeeds Brother Álvaro Rodríguez Echeverría, who headed the institute for 14 years.
Philadelphia, Pa., May 21, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Following judicial decisions ordering Pennsylvania and Oregon to recognize “gay marriage,” critics said that such decisions damage society and ignore the rights of children.
“Every child has a basic right to a mother and a father united in marriage as a family. Today’s decision does not change that,” the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference said May 20, voicing hope for a prompt appeal.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, in a separate message, said that the judicial decision is “a mistake with long-term consequences.” He said the Pennsylvania law protecting marriage had been based on “sound reasons” like defending the rights of children and contributing to the well-being of the community.
Marriage is not only about companionship but about “creating and rearing new life,” the archbishop explained.
He said that attempts to redefine marriage “damage a cornerstone of our human interaction and ultimately work against human dignity itself.”
In a May 20 decision, U.S. District Court Judge John Jones III, a George W. Bush appointee, denounced Pennsylvania laws defining marriage as one man and one woman.
“We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history,” he said.
Brian S. Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said the Pennsylvania ruling “unilaterally makes an end-run around the democratic process and places the capricious will of one man above the desires of millions of citizens.”
While media reports have characterized the marriage laws as a “ban,” they do not bar private ceremonies. Rather, both Oregon and Pennsylvania laws recognize marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The two states’ attorneys general, both Democrats, refused to defend the laws in court.
U.S. District Judge Michael McShane, a President Obama appointee, on May 19 ruled that Oregon’s law unconstitutionally discriminates against same-sex couples. Objectors to the Oregon decision lacked legal standing to ask that it be overturned.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett announced May 21 that he would not appeal the decision affecting his state because “the case is extremely unlikely to succeed on appeal.”
Same-sex couples in both states may now request marriage licenses.
Federal or state judges in Idaho, Oklahoma, Virginia, Michigan, Texas, Utah and Arkansas have recently ruled unconstitutional state marriage laws that recognize marriage as a man-woman union. Other judges have ordered Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee to recognize “gay marriages” from other states.
Many of these court decisions redefining marriage have cited the Supreme Court case U.S. v. Windsor as justification. That ruling, issued in 2013, struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman.
However, in issuing that ruling, the Supreme Court allowed each state to define marriage as it saw fit, saying that federal law was to reflect the law of each state. The ruling did not require any individual state to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples.
In his dissent in the Windsor case, Justice Anthony Scalia warned that the court was declaring those who oppose a redefinition of marriage to be “enemies of the human race.” The recent state marriage rulings have sparked increasing concerns of an erosion of religious freedom and even persecution for those who disagree with changing the definition of marriage.
Baltimore, Md., May 21, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
An ongoing lack of security in the Central African Republic is among the challenges facing those who long for peace, said a relief agency staff member who recently visited the violence-ridden nation.
“Without feeling safe, people are afraid to live in their homes,” Kim Pozniak told CNA May 21.
She explained that “they don’t farm and they’ve either lost or abandoned their small businesses for fear of being killed. This has resulted in thousands of people now without food, proper shelter or a means to make a living.”
Pozniak, a Catholic Relief Services communications officer for sub-Saharan Africa, visited Central African Republic in early May. There, she witnessed the “sheer suffering” of people in the country, many of whom “lack even the most basic things.”
“When a small boy, probably the same age as my daughter, gently tugged on my sleeve as I was observing the conditions, and asked if I had something to eat for him, my drive to bring this crisis to the world’s attention was re-affirmed a thousand-fold,” she reflected.
The Central African Republic has been embroiled in violence for the last 18 months, leaving thousands dead and more than 1.1 million estimated to have been displaced from their homes, with double that number facing food insecurity.
Violence broke out in country in December 2012 at the hands of Seleka rebels, loosely organized groups that drew primarily Muslim fighters from other countries. Although the Seleka were officially disbanded, its members continued to commit such crimes as looting, rape, and murder.
In September 2013, after 10 months of terrorism at the hands of the Seleka, “anti-balaka” self-defense groups began to form. The anti-balaka picked up momentum in November, and the conflict in the nation took on a sectarian character, as some anti-balaka, many of whom are Christian, began attacking Muslims out of revenge for the Seleka’s acts.
Amid continuing conflict among political, tribal, and religious groups, the African Union has deployed 5,000 peacekeepers to the nation, and France has sent 2,000. The U.N. intends to send some 12,000 before the end of the year.
“The situation for most people in CAR is dire,” Pozniak said. “So many – nearly a quarter of the population – have been displaced by the violence and now live in unimaginable conditions, either in displacement camps or elsewhere in the open. They lack food, shelter, healthcare and any other essentials required to survive.”
She described the scene she encountered in one camp in Bangui: “up to a dozen families, mostly headed by women, as their husbands were either killed or driven out by rebels, were sheltering in large, open tents with their children.”
With the advent of the rainy season, water infiltrated their tents, and the families slept on thin straw mats atop several inches of mud. Malaria is also a mounting concern, particularly among children.
Conditions are also difficult in Bossangoa, where some 40,000 people fled their homes due to Seleka attacks. Many sought refuge on the Catholic Mission grounds, where hundreds of families continue to live in fear, with little access to food, shelter and other necessities. Other people in Bossangoa have now begun returning to their homes, but with so many homes destroyed or looted, many of these people have “nothing left.”
In the midst of the suffering, Catholic Relief Services is working to provide assistance, providing crucial seeds and tools for up to 50,000 people in order to plant for the next harvest season. The agency faces obstacles including barely-usable roads, fuel shortages and travel restrictions due to violence.
In addition, Pozniak noted, “the clock is ticking, as the window for successful planting closes at the end of May.” The United Nations has voiced concerns that the country could face famine if adequate planning levels are not met.
Pozniak described visiting one small village on the outskirts of Bossangoa.
“Driving over barely-there roads to those villages, you could see homes burned by Seleka rebels, either partially or completely to the ground,” she said.
“We stopped in one such village, with burned homes, when throngs of people emerged from the thick Central African bush when we arrived. They had fled there during the attack, and were still living there, too afraid to come back and rebuild their destroyed homes, which were situation close to the road.”
“Their cheer and joy upon hearing what they would receive mirrored all the other villages we had visited that day.”
In addition to addressing immediate survival needs within the country, efforts to re-establish peace are also underway, Pozniak said, pointing to Catholic Relief Services’ work with community and religious leaders, as well as women and youth of different faiths.
Reconciliation workshops, held by Rwandans experienced with conflict from the 1994 genocide, aim at forgiveness, allowing people to come together and work through their differences in a non-violent forum.
“Over and over, I heard about the need for peace, the want for peace,” Pozniak said. “Many people in CAR are ready.”
She stressed the importance of support for grassroots efforts underway in order to help them spread their message across the country.
“With still so much tension and violence, people are literally risking their lives by being outspoken about peace in a society torn apart by conflict, loss and suffering,” she said. “Some receive threats to their lives, others risk being alienated by their own communities. Yet, the people I’ve met – the people participating in the workshops – are determined to continue until peace returns to CAR.”
Pozniak also hopes there will be a greater awareness of the situation in Central African Republic among people in the United States.
“While the conflict has received some media coverage on and off, mostly focusing on the violence, most people don’t know this country even exists.”
She quoted one bishop who said, “When you see that people don’t know – or care – about CAR, it makes you feel as though life in CAR is worthless.”
Poznaik noted that Catholic Relief Services has set up a webpage on the Central African Republic for people to educate themselves about the crisis, pray for those involved, participate in advocacy efforts and donate to relief initiatives.
“I’m convinced many more people would care and take on responsibility, we just need to tell them,” she reflected.