Bishop warns of Church plundering in Central African Republic

In the midst of a conflict between the government of the Central African Republic and the rebel Séléka coalition, the Church is suffering from fighting and theft by rebel forces, a local bishop said.

"The plundering continues, day and night, at any time. The terrified people do not flee, but weep, and try to defend the little they still have," Bishop Juan-José Aguirre Muñoz of the Diocese of Bangassou told Aid to the Church in Need on April 4.

Bishop Aguirre is a priest of the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus and has been Bangassou's bishop since 2000. Bangassou is located in the east of the nation, on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Central African Republic also borders Cameroon, Chad, Sudan and South Sudan. Most of the nation's citizens are Christian, though significant minorities practice indigenous religions or Islam.

The country suffered a war from 2004 to 2007, which sprang up again in December.

"Rebels or people disguised as rebels can break into…homes at any time and rob them, armed with submachine guns," said Bishop Aguirre.

The rebel Séléka group entered Bangassou on March 11. According to Aid to the Church in Need, the coalition is of Muslim origin.

As the Séléka advanced across the country, President, Francois Bozizé, was ousted on March 24. Bishop Aguirre was in the capital city of Bangui on that day.

"While we were celebrating Palm Sunday Mass," he said, "firing with heavy artillery and submachine guns began at 7.55 am and lasted for three hours. We live next to the presidential palace, so that we were in the thick of the fighting."

Then, he said, a group of Séléka "forced their way heavily armed into Bangui Cathedral just as the Mass was ending. The rebels began to fire into the ceiling. People threw themselves to the floor, onto the palm leaves. They were forced to hand over the keys for cars and motorcycles parked outside."

In his own diocese, the town of Rafai was captured by some 20 bandits disguised as Séléka, he said. Despite this, no-one was hurt and "the Muslims from the region intervened to see off these 20 street robbers."

"The risen Christ is triumphant, but He always shows the Apostles His wounds," reflected Bishop Aguirre.

Bandits are also stealing goods from the Church and from religious orders, the bishop said, telling of a priest, Father Agustín, who walked 37 miles to say Easter Mass in one of his parishes, since a burglar had taken his transport.

The Central African Republic is among the poorest countries in the world, with extremely low human development and major human rights abuses.

Since 2002, Aid to the Church in Need has been supporting 240 projects in the Central African Republic, providing over $3.2 million.

The aid has been used to safeguard priests, purchase cars and motorcycles, support pastoral work and promote various construction and further training measures.

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