ROME – A Spanish missionary bishop in the Central African Republic understands why many Church leaders in war zones become impatient with demands to make a priority of the Church’s clerical sexual abuse crisis, seeing it as a distraction from the massive and urgent needs facing their people and their cultures.
Yet Bishop Juan Jose Aguirre doesn’t accept that as an excuse, saying that regardless of the situation his country is going through, the protection of children has to be a priority: “It is an issue that touches the whole Church,” he said.
When Aguirre arrived in Central African Republic from Spain 38 years ago, he knew his mission would be challenging. His formation years did little to prepare him for a five-year running civil war that’s decimated his diocese, Bangassu, with Islamic fundamentalist militias trying to gain control over deposits of gold, diamonds and coltan.
Aguirre was in Rome last week to visit priests from his diocese currently living in the Eternal City, both to further their education but also to get a respite from the crisis.
“We’ve been a persecuted church for years now,” he told Crux on Saturday. “Last year, five priests were killed.” Religious sisters who were working in his diocese had to flee because mercenaries from the Séléka group tried to rape them.
Aguirre spoke with Crux about the situation in Central African Republic on Feb. 16. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
What brings you to Rome?
I came to visit my priests, who are here studying, or to prepare everything for those who will come next year, because the Church in Central African Republic is going to need them in the future as formators of priests. But they’re here also because they needed to get out, to take a respite from a situation that has led them to develop PTSD.
The seminarians are in Bangui [the capital]. They are protected, but my priests are in a high-risk area, like I am. We are on the front lines of combat, facing a jihadist mercenary group called Séléka, financed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. They’ve come to Central Africa to conquer it, to put their claws in the country’s gold, mercury, cobalt and coltan.
Is the Central African Republic a rich country?
It is a rich country, with a lot of raw material, without machinery to extract it. Central African Republic is the most fragile country in the region, because it is a very large country, with the size of Spain and Portugal together, but with only five million inhabitants.
Most of its territory has never been studied geologically, and many believe there may be minerals and even oil.
The Gulf countries still have a lot of oil, but they have realized that within 10, 15 years, they will still have oil, but it will be worth less and less. They are looking for ways to remain one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and one such way is to control gold, diamonds, and coltan. Today, whoever has control of the coltan has control of the wars.
Coltan is a key geostrategic material. The largest producer of coltan in the world is the Democratic Republic of Congo and the largest seller of coltan is Rwanda, which steals everything from Congo. Coltan is used in the production of phones and computers, but also weapons, nuclear missiles and drones.
Saudi Arabia tries to destabilize the country using religion as a ruse. In the world there are millions of non-radical, moderate Muslims who have understood the Quran and live it as a religion of peace. But there are radical groups … in Nigeria there is Boko Haram, in Mali there is Ansar, in Central Africa there is Séléka and in Somalia, al-Shabaab, which has attacked a lot in Kenya. All of these are radical groups like ISIS that are being formed with the logistical help of the Muslim countries with petrodollars. They use religion as a smoke-screen and make radicals fight against non-Muslims in wars that have done a lot of damage.
You are a Spanish bishop, who could be much safer at home, and yet, you chose to stay in CAR. What motivates you?
I was born in Córdoba, and I entered the convent of the Comboni missionaries. I arrived in CAR 38 years ago, and in these 38 years I have been moved by the love, the affection, by not wanting to look at my own belly button but look my brother in the face.
I have been moved by the parable of the Good Samaritan, who picks up the one on the ground, without asking if he is male or female, white or black, with a passport from India or Nigeria. We, the missionaries, are there, in situations of some risk. When NGOs or governments have left for safety or prudence, the Church is the last to turn off the light. We are there. It is the charism that God has not given. Without his grace, we would not be anything.
The Church is the last to turn off the light. Have you thought about doing so at some point during the past five years?
We have many projects. For example, the orphanage, where we take care of 1,000 children of parents who died of AIDS. Hundreds of unaccompanied children arrived in Christmas, fleeing from a burning of a village some 60 miles from us. They don’t know if the parents are alive or dead. We have 4 Houses of Hope, where old people with senile dementia live. We have groups of single mothers, young widowed mothers … How are we going to leave, how are we going to abandon them? Where will they find their hope if we leave?
Although it is not a religious war, radical Muslims often target Christians …
We have been a persecuted church for some years now. Last year, five priests were killed and many churches destroyed. They also destroyed a beautiful mission some 100 miles from Bangasu: 300 radical Muslims arrived and destroyed everything. They burned the houses of non-Muslims and our mission, the presbytery, which had restrooms and showers, a luxury in the middle of the jungle. We also had an operating room, a church that had not yet been inaugurated … The mercenaries arrived and destroyed everything, brick by brick so that we wouldn’t come back.
The non-Muslim population, about 10,000 people, found refuge in a nearby town. But the mercenaries attacked this second town on Dec. 31, at 3:00 a.m., while we were celebrating the beginning of the new year. But this is life … this is the life we’ve all built.
This week a meeting will be held in Rome between the pope and the presidents of the episcopal conferences and other leaders of the Church on the subject of sexual abuse against minors. In the face of so much tragedy because of the war, can you talk about this issue in CAR?
Of course. It is an issue that touches the whole Church. It’s a terrible situation, horrible, and touches all the continents.
In my opinion, there are three reasons for this crisis. The first is the entrance of homosexual priests to the seminary, who have lived their homosexuality within the Church in the 1970s to the 1990s. Secondly, the arrival of Internet, through which the negative impulses of many priests have been awakened. Thirdly, there are priests who do not occupy their time well, who have too much free time and let themselves be tempted by the devil.
I also have to say that the same point is valid for many teachers who have sexually abused children in schools, and this is not reported in the news like when a priest or bishop is accused.
I am surprised that in only two countries, Canada and Australia, presidents have publicly asked for forgiveness for cases of sexual abuse of minors in public institutions. The other countries have remained silent. And yet there are cases in all countries, and the government is responsible because they were perpetrated by public employees.
The pope has asked forgiveness because the circumstances of sexual abuse by priests are very serious, but every abuse of a child is serious, as it can completely ruin their lives. Children have been harmed in all spheres of society, not only in the Church. We have to strongly condemn these crimes and discern what our action should be, because they cannot happen again.