The situation in the Central African Republic (CAR) has flared up again. Aid workers talk of it as “dramatic”. If someone who knows the country well says that, then you can be utterly sure that the situation is dire.
The Central African Republic has never featured large in British news reporting. This is a characteristic that it shares with many of France’s former African colonies, which is something of a shame. (When, for example, did you last hear of a news story about Burkina Faso? Perhaps in this magazine, but not elsewhere.) Whenever the CAR does feature, it is usually for all the wrong reasons: such as the grotesque career of the human flesh eating Emperor Bokassa or the country’s current turmoil. For a summary of the hard to follow travails of the country and its current difficulties, see here.
Britain has no embassy or consular services in the CAR, and the foreign office is advising against all travel to the country and that any British citizen there are present should leave as soon as it is safe to do so. It is to this country, however, that the Pope is scheduled to travel next month. Given the usual challenges associated with large gatherings of people, it seems hard to envisage a normal Papal visit. Perhaps the Pope will stay in the airport (though that does not seem like him); even a token visit would cheer the people of the CAR, who desperately need our prayers and our solidarity.
The CAR has severe problems – poverty, poor communications, lack of infrastructure, an irresponsible political class, a population that is swift to divide into sectarian factions based along tribal or religious lines, lack of the rule of law, lack of respect for private property, as well as a population that is heavily armed, with the corresponding ability to use its arms. Ethnic civil war is always a possibility. But the CAR is not alone in this. Most African countries have similar problems. Sometimes these factors blow up into catastrophes like the Rwandan genocide, which took so many by surprise, but shouldn’t have, and sometimes there are merely “ethnic clashes” which lead to more people becoming IDPs (internally displaced persons), as happens in Kenya from time to time (as in late December 2007, and of course, at present.)
This may lead many to despair that Africa will ever escape this morass. This of course is where the Church’s mission can be so important. The Church teaches, let us not forget, respect for all, whatever religious or ethnic differences there might be, and also supports and enables the development of a civil society. The Church’s worst moments in Africa recently have been caused by priests and nuns joining in, or even leading, ethnic conflict. Its best moments have been marked by priests and nuns risking their lives to save people from death, including Muslims. It is worth remembering – indeed to forget it would be to forget the essence of the Gospel – that God loves us all, and the law of charity has no limits, especially not ethnic or religious ones.
The Pope will certainly be going to Kenya and to Uganda, and what he has to say on these matters will be important. And it will have huge importance for the beleaguered people of the Central African Republic.
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