News Analysis

How the world’s youngest cardinal became one of Africa’s strongest moral authorities

Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga of Bangui, Central African Republic (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In the Central African Republic (CAR), one of the world’s most violent countries, the year ended much as it had begun, with Catholic Church leaders condemning brutality by rival armed gangs and deploring the failure of government forces and international peacekeepers to prevent attacks on defenceless civilians.

“I have the impression a war for positions has now started –­ the groups with lots of men, who control the most space, will be able to demand ministries and money,” Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui told France’s Le Monde earlier this month. “Mercenaries are coming and helping themselves to diamonds, gold and cattle ­– whatever they can pillage … We’re now the region’s soft belly, and I fear we’ll soon become its dustbin. All its rejects are seeking shelter here before launching their attacks.”

The 51-year-old cardinal was reacting to the latest atrocity in November, in which two senior priests and at least 86 civilians were massacred at a camp housing 26,000 displaced people near the Catholic cathedral in Alindao. He said he had encountered “scenes of desolation” on a visit to the southeastern town after the “planned and pre-meditated outrage”, with the whole Church-run camp “razed to the ground and burned”.

It was only the latest of many attacks on Church-linked sites in towns such as Bangassou, Mokoyo and Bambari, as well as in the capital, Bangui, where a gun and grenade assault on Our Lady of Fatima’s church in May left 24 Catholics dead and 170 injured.

The CAR is one of the world’s poorest countries. It has been wracked by militia violence mainly involving remnants of Seleka, a Muslim-dominated rebel force which briefly seized power in 2013, and a vigilante counter-movement, anti-balaka.

Having become the world’s youngest cardinal in November 2016, Nzapalainga has since emerged as the CAR’s principal moral authority, co-ordinating his peacemaking efforts with its Muslim chief imam, Oumar Kobine Layama, and other religious leaders. (Catholics make up about a third of the population.)

He’s also gained a reputation for speaking out directly, condemning a proposed amnesty for suspected war criminals, the current arms embargo on the CAR’s armed forces and the failure of MINUSCA, a 13,400-strong mission deployed by the United Nations since 2014 to stem violence and ensure stability.

In two recent statements, the CAR’s bishops urged the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadera to “co-ordinate its actions” with MINUSCA, and said they were “grieved at the complicity of those who have the duty to intervene and stop crimes against humanity, but instead let them happen”. They called on Catholics to boycott their country’s December 1 National Day and mark a “Day of Sorrow and Prayer” instead.

Calls for the boycott were deplored by the Touadera government, which claimed it would “encourage manoeuvres to destabilise democracy”, while MINUSCA rejected accusations of complicity as “harmful and extremely grave”. But they were repeated by Cardinal Nzapalainga, who told Le Monde that the UN force had remained inactive throughout the Alindao attack, without “firing a single shot”, while government administrators had been left “unaccompanied and unprotected”, leaving the CAR’s provinces in rebel hands. He has demanded an international inquiry into this inaction.

Like others, he’s also expressed sorrow that the Pope’s much-praised visit three years ago did little to halt the country’s descent into chaos. “But we still won’t be duped by hidden agendas,” he promised Le Monde. “While others take a backseat role, it’ll be up to us, the Central Africans, to find a solution – and this will be political rather than military, achieved by dialogue and sacrifice”.