The head of the Catholic Church in Mali has said Catholics and Muslims are jointly attempting to mediate in political disputes following disputed elections, as Islamist attacks cause havoc and hardship across the west African country.
“The political situation is quite serious – the current problem lies in knowing whether to hold fresh elections or leave everything as it is,” explained Cardinal Jean Zerbo of Bamako. “But the two groups have to talk to each other and avoid further unrest, so we've set up a group of Muslim, Catholic and Protestant leaders to put pressure on the government and create conditions for dialogue.”
The 76-year-old archbishop, who became Mali's first cardinal in 2017, spoke as tensions continued over the March-April election victory of parliamentarians loyal to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, which was confirmed by the Constitutional Court despite allegations of fraud and irregularities.
He told the Fides news agency religious leaders had a duty to act “as sentinels, rather than spies”, by pre-empting and warning against threats to peace. “If there are so many problems, it means the sentinels aren't working well,” Cardinal Zerbo added. “We must be intercessors and mediate in truth when hostility erupts between groups, families or people, while also keeping prayer alive for the country. Religions aren't divided here – they seek a common line for promoting peace”.
The 200,000-member Catholic Church makes up fewer than two per cent of the 17 million inhabitants of mostly Muslim Mali, where France, the former colonial power, intervened with air strikes in 2013 after ethnic Touareg separatists and Al Qaida-linked Islamists overran the country's northern territories.
Although rebel fighters agreed to be integrated into a national army under a 2015 peace deal with President Keita's government, breakaway groups continued attacks despite security operations by government forces and a 12,000-strong UN mission, MINUSMA.
In March, the secretary-general of Mali's Union of Priests, Mgr Edmond Dembele, told The Tablet the Catholic Church had hoped the coronavirus pandemic might “calm the situation”, but said attacks and abductions were still “causing alarm”, adding that Christians were “highly exposed to the terrorist menace.”
Security has deteriorated throughout in Africa's largely arid Sahel region, with more than 4000 killings in 2019, according to a recent statement by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. In March, the World Food Programme said 861,000 people were currently displaced and 3.7 million facing food insecurity in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, where at least 300 troops were killed in assaults on military outposts during the first three months of 2020.
In his interview, Cardinal Zerbo said Malians had “lived together for centuries” and could not accept “they are now at war”. He added the Church's Caritas organisation had solicited aid for refugees from the fighting, who now faced “both the danger of weapons and increasingly empty markets”.