After clashes in Mali, bishop says country faces ‘grave danger’

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A Catholic bishop in Mali has warned his country still faces "grave danger" after new clashes between French troops and Islamist insurgents.
A Catholic bishop in Mali has warned his country still faces “grave danger” after new clashes between French troops and Islamist insurgents.

SAN, Mali (CNS) — A Catholic bishop in Mali has warned his country still faces “grave danger” after new clashes between French troops and Islamist insurgents.

“We are celebrating Easter in a special context — sadly, our country is still effectively at war, and when we say war, we also say death and desolation,” said Bishop Jean-Gabriel Diarra of San.

“Even if the sound of cannons has eased a little, the nation is still in danger, menaced by acts of terrorism, social conflict and civil war,” he said, urging “prayer and contemplation.”

In an Easter message, the bishop said people were still dying, facing bereavement and being displaced in the landlocked country, where several Catholic churches and rectories were reported desecrated and robbed in rebel-held areas.

He added that a “state of mobilization” declared in February by acting President Dioncounda Traore had failed to stop the conflict and said special efforts were needed by priests, catechists and religious to “make the word of God heard.”

“I invite you to celebrate Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Saturday and Sunday as moments of deep composure and fervent prayer for the healing of Malians and the salvation of Mali,” Bishop Diarra said. “I would also ask you to avoid any clamor and exuberance during these celebrations, whether in the churches or outside.”

Bishop Diarra called for “efforts of personal and community conversion,” as well as for Catholics to prepare for planned presidential and parliamentary elections July 7.

“These elections don’t seem to have excited many people, other than those with posts to canvass for,” the bishop said.

“So I urge you to acquaint yourselves with the stakes and potential candidates. If the climate is favorable, we will be in the middle of our agricultural labors. But if we’re well prepared, it will be easier to participate in this civic action.”

The message was published in late March as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an 11,200-strong African force, under a U.N. mandate, to take over from France’s 4,000 troops when they withdraw in April, three months after intervening to prevent ethnic Tuareg rebels and Islamists from seizing more of Mali after imposing Shariah, Islamic law.

Although French-backed troops recaptured Timbuktu and other northern towns in late January, pushing resistance groups back to the mountainous Algerian border, Islamists counterattacked the strategic town of Gao March 26 after a wave of guerrilla-style operations.

In a January letter to Traore, the bishops’ conference praised efforts to hold the country together and said it would seek a “mobilization of the Christian community” throughout Lent to help secure the country’s future.

However, in a February interview with Catholic News Service, the conference’s secretary-general, Father Edmond Dembele, said he feared “acts of revenge” against Tuareg and Arab citizens, adding that the local population would only be “definitively reassured” when the insurgents were “finally eradicated.”

The 200,000-member Catholic Church makes up around 1.3 percent of Mali’s population of 15.5 million, nine-tenths of whom are Muslim.

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