[On Sunday, Oct. 9, Pope Francis announced a consistory on Nov. 19 for the creation of 17 new cardinals, including 13 under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote for the next pope. Crux is offering a series of profiles of the new cardinals.]
Whether it’s because he wants to highlight the place a prelate comes from, or simply guarantee universality when the time comes to pick a successor, Pope Francis routinely chooses at least one new cardinal from a country that’s never had a member in the Church’s most exclusive club.
In the class of 2016, that title of “never before done” goes to Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui,the capital of war-torn Central African Republic (CAR), though it’s difficult to establish which reason for picking Nazapalainga motivated Francis most.
The pope met the cardinal-elect in 2015, when he visited CAR against the advice of both American and French intelligence. For the past three years the country has been immersed in a sectarian conflict between a Muslim Seleka rebel coalition and a mostly Christian militia known as anti-Balaka, in which some 6,000 people have been killed.
During the worst periods of the conflict, militias were slitting children’s throats, razing villages and throwing young men to crocodiles. Over a million people have been internally displaced as a result of the conflict in what was already the world’s third poorest country.
“Both sides have committed terrible crimes, have murdered, raped, destroyed churches and mosques, and entire villages,” Nzapalainga lamented in a 2015 interview with Aid to the Church in Need.
In an attempt to protect his people and to raise international awareness over the conflict, Nzapalainga has become one of the “three saints of Bangui,” together with Rev. Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, president of the country’s Evangelical Alliance, and Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, president of the Islamic Council.
Since the violence begun, the three men have organized prayer sessions, rotating the encounters to include the Catholic cathedral, the great mosque in Bangui and Protestant churches. They’re also promoting “peace schools,” where children of all different religions can study, as well as mixed healthcare centers open to everyone, irrespective of religious or ethnic background.
In 2014, they toured Western capitals to plead for intervention to stop the bloodshed, meeting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York and Pope Francis in Rome. Their groundwork led to the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force that September.
For their efforts, in 2014 Time magazine named them among the 100 Most Influential People in the World and the United Nations awarded them the 2015 Sergio Vieira de Mello Prize for Peace.
Their core message is that the conflict is not religious or sectarian, but driven by economic and political self-interest. CAR’s chronic poverty comes despite the fact that the country is the world’s 12th largest diamond exporter, and its open-pit mines are renowned for the quality of their gems. Control of the country’s mines is a major objective of all sides.
Observers have pointed out that if peace comes to the former French colony, the three saints of Bangui, as the French daily Le Monde dubbed them, will deserve a strong share of the credit.
Although there’s rarely only one reason for selecting a new cardinal, Francis’s decision to elevate Nzapalainga was probably influenced by the powerful counter-example the three give in an era in which religion is often seen as a source of conflict.
AFP reports that Layama applauded Francis’s decision to make Nzapalainga a cardinal, saying the move honored the country as well as bolstered efforts by leaders of all religious denominations to set aside their differences in the interests of peace.
Francis met with the three leaders during his trip to CAR, when he visited a mosque at a battle-scarred neighborhood of Bangui, considered a no-go zone even by international observers because the area was under the control of jihadist forces.
According to the French press agency, on the Sunday of the announcement, thousands flocked the streets to celebrate Nzapalainga’s nomination. The inhabitants of the Muslim-majority PK5 neighborhood also wanted to join but were too afraid to leave their homes, since it was already night.
In his evening sermon, Nzapalainga thanked the pope for his nomination, stressing that it comes as the country sees a new outbreak of violence.
“I tell you that there is a God for the poor,” he said.
Earlier in the month, 11 people were killed and more than a dozen reported missing in violence that erupted after the slaying of an army commander in Bangui’s predominantly Muslim PK5 neighborhood by an armed militia.
In a nation that’s 80 percent Christian and 15 percent Muslim, where religious hatred often fuels conflict, Francis opened the first Holy Door of the Year of Mercy, eight days before doing so in Rome, and preached forgiveness.
“The first thing is to never hate, to learn forgiveness,” he said, flanked by the now cardinal-elect. “If you have no hatred in your heart, if you forgive, you’ll be victorious. You’ll be victorious in life’s most difficult battle: love. That’s where peace comes from.”
The 49-year old from CAR will become the youngest member of the College of Cardinals, taking the slot previously held by Cardinal Soane Patita Paini, of Tonga, in the Pacific Ocean. Patita, created a cardinal by Francis last year, will turn 55 next December.
Nzapalainga was ordained a priest in 1998, and began his priestly ministry in Marseilles, France. He returned home in 2005, and was ordained archbishop in July 2012, after three years as Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Bangui.
Pope Francis’s 17 new cardinals come from 11 different countries, with every continent but Antarctica getting at least one. Nzapalainga is one of three from Africa, the other two being Bishop Emeritus Sebastian Koto Khoarai of Mohale’s Hoek in Lesotho, and Archbishop Maurice Piat of Port-Louis on the island of Mauritius.
Pope Francis will elevate the new Cardinals on Nov. 19, during a vigil marking the conclusion of the Jubilee Year of Mercy the next day.