MALI – Interview with Father Germain Arama
Father Germain was interviewed when he visited ACN Head Office in Königstein on Thursday, 21 April 2016. He was born in Mopti, in central Mali, studied at the seminary in Bamako, and is now the diocesan bursar of the diocese of Mopti, which serves a region of around 3 million people.
1.Diocese of Mopti – at the centre of Mali
In a predominantly Muslim country, shaken by Tuareg rebellions and threatened by jihadist movements, how is the diocese of Mopti coping with the situation?
There has been a considerable growth in the number of Catholics, and in the number of those receiving the sacraments. For example, in 2015 there were 1,400 Baptisms, 674 Confirmations, almost as many First Holy Communions, and 140 marriages. To give you an order of comparison, in 2012 there were only between 600 and 700 baptisms!
What is the explanation for this growth?
Seeing the way the Christians live, and seeing what they do for others, people come to believe that they are following the right path. They say to themselves, “Well, there are not many of them, but what they are doing is truly praiseworthy.” As a result there are many conversions – in this direction: from the traditional religion of our ancestors to Catholicism. For example, one day a parish was helping the people to dig wells, here and there. When the people of the village realised that it was the Christians doing the work, the animist village chief converted to Catholicism, together with all his family, 10 people in all.
Is the growth in the number of Catholics not also partly a consequence of the Christians fleeing from the North towards the South?
I don’t think so. The Christians from the North who have fled here to us were not very numerous – five or six in Kidal, 20 or so in Timbuktu, 100 to 200 people in Gao. In any case, they were already baptised. So yes, they have swelled the number of Christian in our diocese a little, but not the number of baptisms.
Is the number of priests growing in proportion to the number of the baptised?
Proportionately no, one cannot say that, but in my diocese we have almost 30 priests today, of whom five were newly ordained last year, and if all goes well there will be four new ones in the next two years. And there are eight students in the major seminary as well. But in some regions there is still work to be done. You can still find areas where there are only four priests for 250 parishes or chapel communities!
What are the specific needs of your diocese?
We are already counting very much on your prayers, but we also have plenty of material needs. In all we have seven parishes, and each one has its own language. We have just established a new parish which doesn’t yet have any parish office. We need training programmes. In some villages there are four or five magnificent mosques, while we, the Catholics, are still worshipping in some sort of a shed. We also need congregations of religious sisters to come help us in our pastoral work, and for that of course we have to have somewhere for them to live.
What are the areas where their work is especially appreciated?
They are particularly valuable to us for their work with women. We have a saying to the effect that “the home belongs to the woman.” Women have a particularly important role in regard to their children and their husbands. The woman gets up before anyone else and goes to bed after everyone else. To prevent her from becoming discouraged she needs to be supported. And then there are the young girls. In Sévaré, for example, where the sisters will set up their convent, once the harvest is over, there is not much going on in the villages, and so all the young girls come to look for work in the towns. They are easily exploited and catch all kinds of illnesses… they need support and guidance.
2.Mali in general
Are there any Catholics still left in the North of the country?
The few who are left are for the most part expatriates – French army personnel (from Operation Barkhane), members of the MINUSMA units, the UN Blue Helmets, people from Togo and Ivory Coast.
No Malian Catholics?
Yes, there are some. Those working in the administration, for example, or the teachers (for instance those in the Ecole Sainte Geneviève, in Gao). Last year there were more than 200 of them at Christmas time, and the same again at Easter. But I don’t think they’re there out of conviction. They’re working there because they have to. They need to earn their daily bread
The Church hasn’t really re-established herself in the North since 2012 – neither in Gao, nor in Timbuktu – on account of the security situation. There are no resident priests there and no stable presence of the Church. Would you confirm that?
It’s true. It is a difficult situation. There are suicide bombers, and bombs left here and there. All pastoral work is on hold for the time being. The only priest who goes there from time to time to celebrate Mass, has to leave by plane with an armed guard. Or, if he goes by car, it takes him a whole day. It’s a distance of at least 600 or 700 km, and there is no possibility for him of residing there permanently. In the North, when you go to work there, you leave your family in the morning, but… are you going to be coming back there in the evening to see them again? No one can deal with the situation. Whether Christian or not, anybody can be caught up in the same violence. But we have to hope, I think, and call people to peace and reconciliation.
Nonetheless, some years ago there were Christian communities in the North, weren’t there?
Yes, the White Fathers (Missionaries of Africa) in Gao, and a community of sisters, but they have left. Some have left Mali altogether, while others are in Bamako.
Are there still tensions between Christians and Muslims in the country?
The Christians and Muslims live side by side, day in, day out. It’s not from there that the problems come. At the start of the rebellion there were some who thought the underlying reasons were religious, but in fact it wasn’t the case. The northern region, known as Azawad, wanted independence and it took advantage of the crisis in Libya to get help in the fight. That was the problem, above all.
So what about the jihadist offensives?
There are two sorts of jihadists, two different visions. There are those who joined in with the rebels in order to gain independence for Azawad, and there are those who wanted to make the whole of Mali Islamic. In any case, they did not see eye to eye.
What has happened to those who were trying to impose sharia in Mali? Are there still some of them left in the country?
They were defeated. Some of them were killed, others — no one knows where they are. They must have hidden, or fled to Mauritania, or to Algeria, here or there. But we have to accept that there are some of them still among us, still here. Some of them even came from our own villages. That is why we are still getting bombings and suicide attacks.
What are the principal challenges facing the Catholic Church today?
Reconciliation. Many Christians have lost family members. The Muslims have also lost, here an uncle, there a brother. There has been so much plotting! But now people simply have to agree to be reconciled. And if we, we Christians, want a lasting peace, we have to go through this process of reconciliation. It is unavoidable.
Is reconciliation possible then?
Yes, but the media, who continue to report on the bombings and the tensions, are demonstrating that it hasn’t yet happened. It is essential for the Catholic Church to make people aware of this by telling them that, although mistakes have been made, bad things done, life must still go on.