A bishop-elect in the Central African Republic says he will do everything he can to continue the dialogue with the various rebel groups in the violence-plagued country.

“As a priest, as a pastor and as a bishop, everything that hurts or affects my brothers and sisters also hurts me,” Bishop-elect Aurelio Gazzera told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

“I had the responsibility as a priest – and now I have it even more as a bishop – to look after and protect the people in my care,” he said. “The shepherd not only accompanies his sheep, but also defends them from dangers.”

Gazzera was appointed Coadjutor Bishop of Bangassou Diocese by Pope Francis, who visited the country in 2015.

“I will do everything I can to continue the dialogue with the various rebel groups, and I will talk with those who are giving expression – although of course in the wrong way – to their expectations of the government and the international community,” he told ACN.

“I will try to listen to everyone and, with my limited powers, be a symbol of peace,” Gazzera said.

The Italian Carmelite priest will be made a bishop in Bangui Cathedral on June 9, and has served over three decades in the country.

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In 2013, a Muslim rebel group called Seleka took over the government of the country, giving rise to the pro-Christian anti-Balaka militia movement. Eventually, Seleka was driven out, but tit-for-tat violence between the two groups continues to this day, and the central government has until recently had trouble exercising power outside of the capital Bangui.

Gazzera told ACN that armed groups are “active in many parts of the diocese.”

“On the one hand I am anxious, but on the other hand I feel a deep trust in God. The strength to be a bishop does not come from myself, but from the Lord. Jesus said: ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you’,” he said.

The bishop-elect told ACN the situation in the Central African Republic “remains very difficult and unstable,” with “great insecurity” in many areas.

“Only last December, a village in the Diocese of Bouar was attacked – 28 people were killed, and 900 houses were burnt down. Some missions in Bangassou Diocese are also closed because of attacks in recent months,” he said, adding, “the security situation remains precarious in large parts of the country.”

On Feb. 21, the United Kingdom welcomed the achievements that have come from closer cooperation between the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) – the UN peacekeeping mission – and the government authorities.

“The United Kingdom urges the Government of Central African Republic to ensure all parties are included in the peace process and in local elections, and fulfil the decentralization provisions of the Political Agreement,” said Laura Dix, the UK’s Alternate Political Coordinator at the UN Security Council meeting on Central African Republic.

The most recent peace agreement, the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in the Central African Republic (APPR-RCA), was signed in 2019, gradually enabled pockets of stability in the country.

Dix said the MINUSCA’s good office’s role remains central, “as ensuring inclusive dialogue at the national and local levels is the only way to address the root causes of conflict.”

“Second, security in Central African Republic will not come through the wrong partners. The Wagner Group’s [a Russia-based private arms society] human rights abuses against civilians threaten to cause prolonged insecurity and undo MINUSCA’s achievements. There must be accountability for all human rights abuses no matter who commits them. And to that end, the UK requests MINUSCA to ensure its annual human rights reports are shared in a timely manner,” she said.

“Third, we emphasize that MINUSCA remains central to the pursuit of peace and stability in Central African Republic, and pay tribute to the UN peacekeepers who have lost their lives in the pursuit of this mission,” Dix continued.

“The effectiveness of MINUSCA depends on strong cooperation with the Government of Central African Republic, including by ensuring freedom of movement for its unmanned aerial vehicles. MINUSCA’s Strategic Review should focus on how the Mission can further prepare for a sustainable transition once conditions are met,” she said.