YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – An Italian nun has been murdered in northern Mozambique.
Comboni Sister Maria De Coppi was shot in the head on Tuesday night in the village Chipene, located in Nampula Province. The province borders Cabo Delgado, where an Muslim insurgency has been raging for five years.
De Coppi was killed when she was on her way to a student dormitory during an attack on a parish mission. The attackers also burned the church, a hospital, and the primary and secondary schools in the complex.
Father Loris Vignandel and Father Lorenzo Barro were able to escape to safety.
“They burnt everything, breaking down all the doors except for ours. And this makes us very suspicious: how come and why precisely our two doors were not touched?” Vignandel wrote after attack, claiming God must have spared the priests because they “still have something to live for.”
The bishops’ conference of Italy issued a statement lamenting the loss of De Coppi, noting it came just a few months after another missionary sister was killed in Haiti.
“After Sister Luisa Dell’Orto, Little Sister of the Gospel of Charles de Foucauld, who died on June 25 in Haiti, we mourn another sister who with simplicity, dedication and in silence offered her life for the love of the Gospel,” said Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, archbishop of Bologna and president of the Italian episcopal conference.
The cardinal said in his Sept. 7 statement that he was offering “deep condolences” to the Comboni Missionary Sisters and to the diocese of Vittorio Veneto.
“We pray for Sister Maria who for sixty years has served Mozambique, which has become her home. May her sacrifice be a seed of peace and reconciliation in a land that, after years of stability, is once again scourged by violence, caused by Islamist groups that have been sowing terror and death in vast areas of the north of the country for some years,” Zuppi said.
“My thoughts, on behalf of the churches in Italy, go to the family members and the Comboni sisters, to Father Lorenzo and Father Loris and to all the missionaries who remain in so many countries to bear witness to love and hope,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Southern Africa issued a Sept. 7 statement expressing its “deep sorrow” over the murder of the nun, and said they were increasingly concerned about the safety of priests and nuns in the area.
“There is nothing one can say at this moment to console you except to assure you that we grieve with you,” the statement said.
“At this challenging time, we try to hang on to the words of Jesus, who promises those who mourn while believing in him that they shall be comforted,” the letter continued.
They said De Coppi’s life, like so many others before her, has been “brutally terminated for greed and intolerance of freedom of belief.”
The bishops’ conference added the nun died “a martyr’s death,” noting that over six decades, the nun never abandoned the poor and destitute.
De Coppi was a fierce critic of the ongoing war in northern Mozambique.
“The last two years have been very hard. In the north of the country there is a war going on for gas fields and people are suffering and fleeing: In my parish there are 400 families coming from the war zone. Then came the cyclone. Finally, last year the drought lasted for a long time. Today in Nampula there is extreme poverty,” she said in an interview earlier this year.
The missionary said the people of the region have been “waiting for the war and calamities to pass.”
Nampula province has been affected by the ongoing insurgency in the neigboring Cabo Delgado province.
Fighting broke out in the Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique in 2017 when a group calling itself al-Shabab — not linked to the Somali group of the same name – attacked towns in the region.
After the rebels seized the town of Palma in early 2021, troops from neigboring countries arrived in the country to help the Mozambican military.
Around 2,000 troops from eight Southern African Development Community (SADC) nations, known as the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM), were deployed on July 15, 2021. Rwanda, a non-SADC member, had earlier sent in 1,000 soldiers to Cabo Delgado, after an agreement with Mozambique.
The insurgents are known for their brutal methods, including burning villages and beheading civilians, and at least 4,000 people have died in the conflict.
The International Organization for Migration estimates over 900,000 people have had to flee their homes since the conflict began.