ROME – From Africa to South America, bishops are saying enough is enough to the violence which for years has gripped nations throughout these regions, turning to the traditional practice of prayer and fasting to obtain peace.
In addition to the many individual appeals for peace by Church leaders throughout many pockets of the world in conflict, bishops in Nigeria, Nicaragua, and Colombia are taking things a step further, and have launched campaigns for prayer and fasting in order to bring the conflicts tearing their countries apart to a halt.
“If we are not able to stop this wave of violence, then we are going to miss a crucial moment in history and the conditions of the pandemic will be dangerously worse,” said Monsignor Héctor Fabio Henao, director of Caritas Colombia’s National Secretariat for Social Pastoral Ministry, at the Aug. 20 virtual presentation of the Colombian bishops’ upcoming Week for Peace.
Henao, whose office is organizing the prayer week, pointed to several recent episodes of violence in the country, including, among other episodes, a recent killing spree in a gang and rebel controlled area that left 13 young people dead and the assassination of several social leaders and ex-rebels.
The Week for Peace, which is in its 33rd edition and which this year will take place Sept. 6-13, will hold the theme, “Let’s take the step, the reunion is with peace.”
According to a statement published on the Columbian bishops’ website, for the first time the event will be held entirely through digital means due to the COVID-19 coronavirus, and will be marked by testimonies, reflections from Pope Francis, biblical reflections, and moments of prayer promoted by the bishops, who are also encouraging local individuals, families, communities and parishes to host their own events and make their own personal commitments.
Recalling Pope Francis’s visit to Colombia in 2017 for the signing of a peace accord ending a decades-long conflict between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Henao said the Week for Peace is an invitation to continue the process of dialogue that the pope encouraged.
The Week for Peace, he said, “is an example of agreement and dialogue and it is a meeting point for multiple perspectives within Colombia’s diversity. It has been the point of expression of the will of a society which feels that it is walking vigorously towards the construction of peace.”
Pointing to the theme of the pope’s visit, “Let’s take the first step,” Henao said that three years later, Colombia is saying: “Let’s keep taking these steps. And these steps have to lead us to a reunion with peace.”
Archbishop Óscar Urbina of Villavicencio, president of the Colombian bishops’ conference, also weighed in during the virtual presentation, insisting that “Peace is a task entrusted to the responsibility of all, it is a certainty, a hope which has in its favor the future and destiny of Colombia. Peace is necessary.”
Calling peace a treasure that each person carries in their hearts, Urbina told viewers that “peace depends on you, and with this conviction it will pass from the individual to society and the community, and thus it will become action, because peace is wisdom, courage, commitment and happiness. If we want, we can.”
In Nicaragua, the bishops have designated the month of September as a time of prayer for peace in the country, which has seen an escalation of tensions that have also impacted the Catholic Church, most recently with an attack on the cathedral in Managua.
On July 31, a man threw a Molotov cocktail inside the cathedral, targeting a prized 400-year-old crucifix known to locals as “the Blood of Christ.”
After the incident, Pope Francis in his Aug. 2 Sunday Angelus address lamented the loss of the historic image and offered prayers for the country, telling Nicaraguans that “I am close to you and I am praying for you.”
The episode was the latest in a series of attacks on churches that took place against the backdrop of wider, deep-seeded tensions between Nicaragua’s bishops and President Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, who serves as the country’s vice president.
Uprisings against the government in Nicaragua began in 2018, and in the subsequent years of unrest, numerous bishops and priests from the country have been vocally critical of the government, opening their churches as places of refuge for protestors seeking a place to hide during violent confrontations with police and the military. As a result, churches and charitable offices have been continual targets.
In an Aug. 15 statement, the presbyterial council of the Archdiocese of Managua voice gratitude for the expressions of solidarity the archdiocese received in the wake of “the sacrilegious attack” on the cathedral and other “deplorable acts of disrespect for the church in Nicaragua.”
They asked for financial assistance in restoring both the crucifix and the chapel where it was housed, and urged Catholics in the country to “stand firm in the faith, careful not to let the evil one come and sow discord among us.”
As a means of resisting violence, they encouraged faithful to adopt a spirit of reparation, fasting and prayer, asking for forgiveness “for the souls of those who wish to lead our society along paths of hatred, confrontation (and) offense.”
Announcing September as a month of prayer for healing and peace, the council asked that Mary intercede for the country, helping its citizens to become “artisans of peace, taking decisive and effective steps along the path of a culture of understanding, which allows the present and future of this nation to inherit true harmony, peace, justice and respect for fundamental human rights.”
“We Nicaraguans deserve it,” they said, “and we will give an account to God for the contribution that each one of us makes.”
In Nigeria, where Christians for years have been the victims of religious violence, the bishops have launched their own 40-day prayer campaign for peace, lasting from Aug. 22-Oct. 1, Nigeria’s Independence Day.
According to the International Christian Concern (ICC), somewhere between 50,000-70,000 Christians have been killed in the past Nigeria, the most populous African nation.
Christians make up about half Nigeria’s population of 206 million, but have faced harsh persecution in recent years on multiple fronts, primarily from Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram and Muslim Fulani herdsman, who have attacked Christian villages in search for grazing territory for their cattle.
Most of these attacks happen along Nigeria’s “Middle Belt” – where the predominantly Muslim North meets the predominantly Christian South.
Christian farmers have been hit particularly hard, with thousands forced to flee fertile farmlands to avoid an attack and potential death. Priests have also been routinely targeted. Many observers speculate that it is advocacy from the pulpit that has made some clergy and even seminarians targets of kidnapping and murder.
As part of their prayer campaign, Nigeria’s bishops are encouraging Catholics to say one Our Father, three Hail Mary’s and one Glory Be daily, and to recite a full rosary Oct. 1, meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries and praying for God to save Nigeria from violence.
In an interview with Vatican News, Father Patrick Alumuku, communications director for the Archdiocese of Abuja, said the killings are “very worrisome” and have been going on for years “without the intervention of the government.”
“Christians are frustrated and exasperated by this situation and have even called for a change of leadership in the security agencies,” he said, adding that a recent appeal from Pope Francis for peace in Nigeria and the current prayer campaign “are the things sustaining the Christian faith of the people of Nigeria.”
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