Friday 23 March 2018

Spanish bishop despairs as C. Africa diocese descends 'into hell'

Spanish bishop despairs as C. Africa diocese descends 'into hell'
(AFP 06/02/17)

For 17 years, an Andalusian priest has quietly served as bishop in Central Africa's Bangassou. But last month, creeping sectarian violence exploded in his town, handing him the toughest-ever challenge of his ministry.

Bangassou, which lies on Central African Republic's southeastern border with Democratic Republic of Congo, for long had been largely spared the violence of a bitter sectarian conflict which erupted in 2013.

But in May, it hit the headlines when at least 108 people were slaughtered and 76 wounded, according to the UN, in an assault by Christian anti-Balaka rebels who targeted UN peacekeepers before turning on Muslims.

"I was here for 33 wonderful years, but the past four years have been a relentless descent into the abyss," sighs Juan Jose Aguirre Munoz, an easy-going 62-year-old with a greying beard.

Born in 1954 in the shadow of Cordoba's magnificent "mosque-cathedral", Aguirre Munoz first came to this former French colony in 1980, a year after the ousting of "emperor" Jean-Bedel Bokassa.

Fluent in French and in Sango, a Creole language which is commonly used in Central Africa, Aguirre Munoz has seen his adopted homeland sink into a spiral of internecine hatred, pitting the Christian anti-Balaka militia against the mainly Muslim ex-Seleka rebels.

"I arrived in Obo near the Sudanese border as a Comboni missionary," he says of a small town in the country's far east where he worked with a Catholic organisation ministering to those in extreme poverty.

"That's where I spent my first seven years. I would take my moped and visit the 40 or so chapels along the Sudanese border. At night, I slept in a hut, completely on my own," Aguirre Munoz recalls.

"I used the time to pray and write. And during the daytime we would build chapels with the people," he says, his eyes lighting up with nostalgia for how it was before the violence began.

- 'The man who speaks to militias' -

Ordained bishop of Bangassou in 2000, he quickly became a well-known figure in this town which has a population of 35,000 and is a 700-kilometre (430-mile) drive from the capital Bangui.

The Andalusian swiftly won the respect of the locals with his "Bangassou Foundation", a charity set up in 2003 which is supported by donors from Spain.

"Within the diocese, we have set up four homes for the elderly with dementia and for those accused of witchcraft, and also many cooperatives where young people can learn a trade like carpentry, as well as schools," he says.

And his work to advance dialogue and peace also earned him the moniker of "the man who speaks to militias".

But it was recently that he went through one of the worst moments of his ministry, on the night of May 12-13 when the city's Muslim quarter came under fierce attack by a heavily-armed group of anti-Balaka rebels.

- 'They just shot him' -

Woken by gunfire, he got up and made his way to the mosque where the city's Muslim population had taken refuge on the advice of the UN peacekeepers who left soon after, he says.

There in the Muslim quarter, he saw armed men looting shops and homes.

"There were about a hundred of them surrounding the mosque. I tried to get between them several times," he said.

"They saw the imam leaving. And they shot at him. He fell to his knees, mortally wounded. When I got there, I found him just like that so I carried his body away to give him a dignified burial.

"The anti-Balaka yelled at me not to touch him," he says, his face twisting with emotion at the memory.

During the attack, more than 4,400 people fled their homes, UN figures show, some of whom sought refuge at the church and in Aguirre Munoz's residence.

"Here is Rome. We're under the protection of the bishop, nothing can happen to us," explained one of the Muslims taking refuge inside the church.

Several days after the assault, the Spaniard was asked by the UN's MINUSCA mission to try and recover the bodies of four peacekeepers who were killed in an assault on their convoy outside Bangassou.

At the time, the assailants -- once again anti-Balaka rebels, the UN says -- were close by.

"It took two days of negotiations. It was an ordeal. The hardest part was when I took the hand of one of the peacekeepers. I saw he was married," he says.

"It's an image which still haunts me. I think about him and about his family."

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