By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Bishop Nestor-Desire Nongo-Aziagbia of the Central African Republic has been kidnapped on one occasion and shot at on another, yet his peaceful and calm disposition hasn’t been rattled.
“It’s part of the risk I take in the pastoral ministry entrusted to me,” he says matter-of-factly.
Yet the realities of life in a war-torn country are inescapable, and Bishop Nongo isn’t naïve about the challenges facing one of the world’s poorest nations.
“The crisis in the country has caused a lot of damage. People were killed. Their properties looted destroyed. And people have wounds in their hearts,” he says with a calm, steady voice.
“But if you give hate to those wounds, you will have a philosophy of vengeance and that is not Christian,” Bishop Nongo said. “This is the main challenge the Christian community is facing in going for peace, pardon, and reconciliation.”
The Central African Republic has been engaged in a civil war since 2012 – one often described as a religious conflict between Christians and Muslims, a characterization this bishop on the frontline rejects.
Instead, he insists the crisis is about political failures related to rebels and gang violence, where both Muslims and Christians have been leading an effort to establish peace, yet walk a tightrope trying to avoid being manipulated.
The Tablet spoke with Bishop Nongo while he was in the nation’s capital to participate in the Second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, as well as an initiative timed to coincide with the event in conjunction with the papal charity Aid to the Church in Need.
“Religious leaders throughout the country have been mobilized for peace and to counteract nascent hatred. The facts are horrendous: no one is spared. On both sides of the community, some are terrorized by armed groups, while others enjoy protection at the highest cost,” he told attendees at a breakfast gathering last Thursday.
“One of the benefits of the crisis is the strengthening of relations between religious denominations … these relationships have now evolved from a strictly personal to a more institutional one. However, vigilance remains appropriate as to the manipulation of religion for other purposes,” he continued.
Bishop Nongo told The Tablet that the great benefit of participating in the Religious Freedom Ministerial has been a reminder that while he may be thousands of miles away from many of the other participants, they still have a vested interest in the country’s future and see religion as a positive force.
“The gathering of religious leaders worldwide in one place is a manifestation for me that there is still hope for our humanity, even though there are tendencies to use religion for what it is not,” he said. “But a good number of people are still convinced of the true value of religion and they want to use religion for that purpose to create bridges between human beings.”
“Being a part of that project is a great support for me and is a consolation,” he added.
At home, Bishop Nongo serves as the President of the Central African Republic’s bishops’ conference where alongside the normal pastoral priorities of “preaching the good news, catechesis, and making sure there are enough priests,” he says the country’s Catholic bishops are concerned with “education, literacy, technical training, and healthcare.”
“Those are our main challenges, because we know the crisis the country is facing is based on poverty, misery, and the economy,” he said.
In particular, he pointed to illiteracy, where he says some 70 to 80 percent of the country is unable to read.
Through engaging in both practical and pastoral initiatives, he believes the Church is helping – even if slowly – begin a new chapter.
Those efforts received a major boost in 2015 when Pope Francis visited the country – rejecting warnings from the international community that is was too dangerous to do so – where he made a plea for peace and a new start for the country.
“Pope Francis was a God-sent messenger to the Central African Republic,” Bishop Nongo recalls. “His pastoral visit, even though some countries didn’t want it to happen the way it happened, contributed to positively changing the situation in the Central African Republic.”
He reflected on the pontiff arrival in the nation’s capital of Bangui, entering into an area known as PK5 where “our Muslim brothers and sisters were secluded and couldn’t move out.”
“Pope Francis met them there, visited, prayed with him. As he was moving out, they followed him. It was a kind of liberation,” said Bishop Nongo.
Along the way, Pope Francis helped launch a pediatric hospital, which he describes as the country’s largest healthcare provider for mothers and children.
“It was not only a pastoral visit to the Catholic Church but a visit to the whole nation, and he carried us along and encouraged us to move forward,” Bishop Nongo said. “He made clear it’s not a religious crisis, and believers could contribute to solving it.”
“People have tried to divide us, but we have to continue expressing our love and unity. I think his message has been listened to,” he concluded.