AFRICA/SOUTH SUDAN - Bishop Carlassare: "South Sudan is on the right path, but the path is long"

Saturday, 4 November 2023 local churches   area crisis   ethnic minorities   pope francis  


by Luca Attanasio
Rumbek (Agenzia Fides) – Christian Carlassare, a Comboni missionary, is the youngest bishop in Africa. He was born in Schio (Vicenza) in 1977 and immediately after his ordination in 2004 went to South Sudan, where he learned the Nuer language and worked first as a parish vicar and then as a parish priest in Fangak. On March 8, 2021, Pope Francis appointed him bishop of Rumbek, the capital of Buhayrat State, in central South Sudan. A month before his episcopal ordination, which was scheduled for May of the same year, the missionary suffered a serious assassination attempt in which he was seriously injured and temporarily disabled in his lower limbs. After regaining his health, he was finally able to receive episcopal ordination on March 25, 2022 in the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Rumbek. Some time later, Bishop Carlassare acknowledged that the traumatic experience of the assassination made him even more connected to the people he was called to serve. "That night," the missionary bishop recalls today in an interview with Fides, "two people came in and pushed us against the wall as if they wanted to kill us. Then they lowered their rifles and fired a dozen shots, some of which hit my legs. It was a great humiliation that taught me to be humble, a very hard experience for me and for the diocese, an incomprehensible attack (a priest from the Diocese of Rumbek and four lay people were convicted in connection with the assassination attempt, ed.). In a certain sense, however, it forced me to show solidarity with so many innocent victims, with the people of South Sudan themselves, who have been brought to their knees by violence, arrogance, the desire for power and the desire to control resources. I have felt connected to so many victims and I thank the Lord for his presence at this time, but also for returning as a wounded man among a wounded people: we rose together, believing in the healing that is possible. With this view of himself and the people around him, the Bishop describes to Fides the current situation in the youngest country in the world (it only became an independent state in 2011), based on the results of the so-called Revitalized Agreement, the Agreement signed on September 12, 2018 to put an end to the war that began in 2013 between the two opposing factions led by Salva Kiir, the current president, and Riek Machar, the country's first vice president. “The peace agreement” acknowledges the Bishop of Rumbek “remains in place, there is no open conflict in the country, although some areas are still controlled by militias, especially in Upper Nile, where tensions are most evident. It is no coincidence that the greatest resources are concentrated there, the oil, the fields that could feed the entire South Sudan. Unfortunately, the problem is that political unity remains very fragile as long as there is hunger and poverty." There has been progress since 2018, the year of the agreement, although the road to stability, economic recovery and full democratization is still long. "The elections," recalls the missionary bishop, "were postponed until December 2024. According to the agreement, they were supposed to take place in August 2022, but that was not possible. They were postponed because there were a whole series of other decisions that had not yet been taken or only... were partially implemented. These included the unification of the army, some national and regional government reforms and the need to reorganize the electoral apparatus, which is impossible without a registry office. The last census took place in 2010, when the state of South Sudan did not yet exist. "It is not yet clear what the new constituencies will look like. Many people are displaced within the country and out of the country, where should they vote?", Carlassare adds, "Indeed, elections are a current issue, but many wonder how they should be held. The government is sure: 'We will do them!' And perhaps they will be done but to achieve true democracy there is a long way to go." The most controversial outstanding issues include the reunification of the army and the organization of power. For many years, various well-armed militias and dispersed groups have clashed harshly, committing heinous crimes and bringing the young country to the brink of disaster. Now they should join together into a single group that should ensure the safety of everyone, not just their own ethnic group or tribe. “The ruling group,” reports the bishop, “is doing its work to the best of its knowledge and belief. But there are no long-term plans. As for the reunification of the army, there are barracks for housing where all soldiers should have gone to be trained. They went there, as they had been ordered, but were isolated in these camps without being assigned. There are non-integrated militias, especially in regions where the situation is more problematic, such as Upper Nile. "Some progress has been made, but it is still not enough." As for the project to reorganize ministries, under the agreement on national unity there was a basic division of responsibilities and for each ministry there are government and opposition staff; However, the bishop describes a situation in which there is a lack of a process of national dialogue that is open to everyone, including the marginalized groups: "In South Sudan there are many other opposition groups that do not feel that all groups are represented. There are ethnic groups in the government, the most represented, such as the Dinka and Nuer, but there are also some smaller groups such as Acholi and Zande Scilluc who are not integrated and do not feel represented. Some groups still do not have access to services, people's lives have remained the same as they were 50 years ago, development is only taking place in some areas. Although South Sudan is rich in resources and blessed with luxuriant nature, it ranks at the bottom of global development and welfare statistics. "The biggest problem," said Bishop Carlassare, "is the economic crisis. There are attempts to create local companies and use the oil for their own benefit, but apparently the resources remain a privilege for a few and a curse for the population. After the agreement it was hoped that the currency would hold up against the dollar, but instead it is losing and people are starving. There is little entrepreneurship, little opportunity to start businesses. There is finally a push to buy more local products, but still "too much always comes from abroad". Pope Francis has followed South Sudan with particular attention since the beginning of his pontificate. He has launched appeals at the Sunday Angelus prayer, organized prayer vigils, called meetings at the Vatican, and kissed the feet of political and religious leaders. He finally visited the African country last February. "The Pope's attention to South Sudan," said the bishop and Comboni missionary, "had and continues to have a positive influence on national politics. He worked for the emergence of the peace agreement and the formation of the national unity government. His journey has given a lot of hope and courage to the poor and desperate population. The situation, as the Pope knows very well, is still very difficult: two million refugees abroad, as many internally displaced people, armed groups still active in some areas, serious repercussions of climate change: all this together with the economic crisis makes life very difficult for many. South Sudan is on the right track, but the road will be long. From now on it will be important to take steps towards democratization, elections and the desire to involve more and more people in the administration of the country and to limit the space of those who want to continue the war as a means of survival for their group". At the Synod on Synodality, numerous African Catholic communities were represented, both in terms of quantity and quality. The voice of the continent, with its sufferings and problems, but also its resources and infinite human and material riches, was very present in the meetings of the Assembly that have just ended in the Vatican. "Although with delay", recalls Bishop Carlassare, who received episcopal ordination in March 2022 as a result of the attack, "we have embarked on a path of common participation by groups that in the past were divided among themselves, such as diocesan clergy and religious or like the clergy and the laity. It is essential for this country that strong and mature communities grow, also able to influence society through faith-inspired decisions, and that can only start from the bottom. Bold decisions when necessary also non-conformist ones. All this contributes to overcoming the divisions within the Christian population itself, which is in the majority in the country but is sometimes not well structured, but also in relation to other cultures, such as the Dinka or, in general, the Nilotes "who have not yet accepted the gospel and the message of Jesus". (Agenzia Fides, 4/11/2023)