As severe violence continues to afflict the Central African Republic, Catholics are praying a novena for peace and encouraging forgiveness amid the "desolation."

Bishop Nestor Desiré Nogo Aziagbia of Bossangoa has said that his country is in "shambles" after a year of fighting and political unrest.

"The Central African Republic has become a shadow of its former self," said the bishop, who now considers his country to be "a failed state."

The international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need launched a novena for the Central African Republic from Dec. 17-23 to pray for the victims of the conflict, refugees, the Catholic pastors and faithful, and for an end to violence.  

Bishop Juan José Aguirre of the southeastern city of Bangassou reflected on the need for prayer in a Dec. 11 introduction to the novena.

"After 35 years in Africa I know from personal experience that the power of prayer can cause hatred to melt. Hatred makes people bitter. Peace makes life sweet," the bishop told Aid to the Church in Need. "To forgive without further ado loosens all knots. Unconditional forgiveness cancels out the bitterness and sadness between people."

The violence has driven people to the brink of despair, he said, and they need to hear "that tomorrow will be better, that calm will return after the storm, that the Lord and his passion on Calvary is the key to understanding what is happening to us."

"Where did peace hide itself in this country?" he asked. "Will it be a Christmas with cribs and carols, or one with Herod, machetes and the presidential guard?"

Bishop Aziagba explained that his diocese in the country's northwest faces a "terrible" situation, with the pillaging of its churches, chapels, convents, pastoral centers, educational buildings and health care facilities. The crisis has prevented the diocese from continuing its health care, educational and employment programs, to focus instead on "managing an emergency situation."

Former rebels of the Seleka coalition have brought "nothing but trials and tribulations," the bishop said.

"It is a sinister picture. Desolation is everywhere. This banditry has gotten even worse now that these scoundrels operate openly," he said in a Dec. 16 letter lamenting the murders, rapes, kidnappings, property theft and destruction the country has suffered, including the desecration of churches.

Hundreds of people have been killed in the national capital of Bangui this month. Food supplies are disrupted and hunger threatens the people. Bossangoa has suffered significantly and now hosts tens of thousands of refugees

About 600,000 Central Africans are now estimated to be displaced within their country, while about 80,000 have fled to neighboring countries.

The Central African Republic was torn by war from 2004 to 2007. Violence again broke out in December 2012.

The Seleka coalition, a loosely organized band of rebels that drew many Muslim fighters from other countries, installed their own leader as president in a March coup.

Bishop Aziagbia said the coup "plunged this suffering country into the depths of an abyss."

Although the coalition is officially disbanded, some former Seleka members continue to commit serious crimes. Many are now in the government armed forces.

The bishop said that the extortion and human rights violations have caused some Central Africans to revolt and organize in self-defense militias called Anti-balaka, "anti-machete" units.

"Military clashes between the Seleka and Anti-balaka always end up in suffering for the civilian population. It is part of the criminal logic of both parties," he said.

"The Christian and Muslim communities also got caught up and became de facto victims of these angels of death."

The conflict has helped provoke religious tensions between Christians and Muslims in a country where such tensions were previously minimal.

The bishop urged Central Africans to avoid the tendency to lump Anti-balaka forces with Christian movements and the Seleka with the Muslims, saying both groups have members of different religions.

The African Union has several thousand droops present in the country, as do the French. The bishop praised the "bravery" of the Congolese troops of the peacekeeping forces.

He also noted that some Anti-Balaka militiamen have surrendered their weapons.

The bishop accused the ruling government of wanting to "strangle an entire population," noting its "lethargic" response to the crisis in Bossangoa.

Despite the situation, he recalled that Advent celebrates happiness: "God made Himself one of us in his smallness, his humility, and his fragility. He lifts us up from our degradation to fill us with his glory."

"The God who stoops down to the poor, the orphan and the widow, will certainly dry the tears in His children's eyes and bring them his joy," he said.