CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC – Brave priest works to break cycle of sectarian violence in Bozoum
The parish of St Michael in Bozoum is one of the oldest parishes in the country. It was first founded in 1927, the first mission station outside the modern capital of Bangui. It became famous above all as a result of the courageous work of the Italian Carmelite Father Aurelio Gazzera. Father Aurelio, who is 53 today, had already become something of a legend by his mid-40s. It was in 2007, in fact, when he succeeded single-handedly in putting a stop to the ravages of the bandits, the so-called “Zaraguinas“, who were looting, abducting children, extorting ransoms and generally keeping the people in fear and terror. Father Aurelio went out, unarmed, to meet the heavily armed bandits and succeeded in persuading them to return to a normal life with their families, to mend their ways and leave the people in peace. “My only weapon was prayer“, he says. A few months later the people were able to live in peace once more, and their children could go to school again. To this day the children in the villages of the region still sing a song about him: “Mercina Aurelio na Nzapati lo” – “Thanks to Aurelio and his God for making the bandits put down their guns“.
However, the next time Bozoum came to the notice of the world was during the bloody warfare of 2013 and 2014. On this occasion Father Aurelio again succeeded, through tireless peace negotiations with all the warring parties and with the various different ethnic groups, in preventing a massacre in his town. Many of the world media reported on the action of this courageous priest, who saved hundreds of lives but who on many occasions almost paid with his own life for this. But his motto was, and is: “Even if they kill me, I will not die“.
In his efforts to bring peace, he was slapped in the face by the rebels, his car was shot up and on one occasion an overheated Muslim mob very nearly lynched him. While stones rained down on his car and furious individuals threatened him with guns, Father Aurelio quietly prayed the Rosary. He lived by the literal word of the Gospel: “Do good to those who hate you“.
Immediately after this incident, he set out, together with a handful of volunteers from the parish, to bring water, rice and medicines – provided at his own expense – to the Muslims, who had retreated together in a dense crowd for safety for fear of reprisals. Above all he wanted to bring them consolation, as he said later, adding, “They were the same people who had threatened me and smashed the windows of my car with stones. But now they were nothing but frightened children, women and men, who were also in need.“
He even succeeded in persuading the people of his parish get involved in active deeds of charity towards the Muslims. Initially, he ventured only cautiously to ask the people to bring money and food to the church in order to help the Muslims. “I did not press this point too hard, because I know that the wounds are still very much open. Many people have lost family members, others had relatives who were tortured; some were robbed, and all of them were forced to spend weeks far away from home – and all this because of the overwhelmingly Muslim Seleka rebels and some local Muslims.“
In the end Father Aurelio was overwhelmed by their generosity. “Normally, with the collection for the poor which we hold once a month, the people give a little bit of food for the orphans and a little bit of money, between 15 and 20 Euros. But that Sunday my Christians really touched me. They brought a great quantity of foodstuffs with them and contributed more than 70 Euros!“ That is a lot of money in such a desperately poor country. He adds, visibly moved, “The people were willing to give much more for their enemies of yesterday than they normally give for their own brothers and sisters, the poor people of the parish.“
Father Aurelio knows well that the most important thing of all is to break the terrible spiral of hatred and revenge and, after the war, to rebuild not only the ruined houses but above all the hearts and consciences of the people. The present Year of Mercy is an ideal opportunity to do so. In fact it was in the Central African Republic that Pope Francis actually anticipated this year by opening the Holy Door in the Catholic cathedral of the capital Bangui on 29 November 2015, in order to make this Mercy tangibly present above all in this country so torn apart by hatred and violence. And in his homily the Pope also declared Bangui the “spiritual capital of the world“.
Father Aurelio wants to proclaim this message of Divine Mercy to everyone. Above all else he is a priest, heart and soul. He says “If I can give some food to someone who is hungry, then that is already something. But if I can give him the true Food, namely Christ, then I am giving him everything.“ His parish is flourishing, and every year there are over 100 baptisms. There have been spiritual vocations from the parish, and his church is full for every Holy Mass. Yet it is precisely this – though in fact a reason for joy – that has also brought him a problem, for the church has now become too small! The structure of the church, which was built in the 1960s, is also suffering, and there are cracks in the foundations. This damage must be repaired and at the same time Father Aurelio wants to enlarge the church so that it can accommodate more of the faithful. ACN is helping him with 40,000 Euros, so that he can repair and enlarge this church and so that this parish church of Bozoum can in future become a place of mercy for still more of his people.