Over two months ago, the UN issued an appeal for a worldwide ceasefire in the hope that people would instead concentrate on the battle against Covid-19. Six days later, the Pope also echoed this appeal. Now ACN has contacted Church leaders on the ground in the various conflict regions in order to find out what the result has been. Their conclusion: despite the COVID-19 pandemic, war and terrorism have continued. The charity has conducted a brief survey, ranging through Cameroon, Syria, the Philippines, Ukraine, Nigeria, Iraq, Mexico and the Central African Republic.
“The fury with which the virus has struck shows clearly that it is madness to continue making war,” declared Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general on March 23, 2020. “The time has come to leave the armed conflicts behind in order to concentrate our efforts on the real battle of our lives,” he continued, in the hope that, confronted with a disease that was striking indiscriminately against every single nation, the men of war would sit up and take notice. Following up on this appeal on Sunday, March 29, Pope Francis called for “the creation of humanitarian aid corridors, an opening up to diplomacy and concern for the needs of those facing a situation of extreme vulnerability.”
An opportunity to forge peace?
“Here the conflict is continuing,” replies Archbishop Andrew Nkea of Bamenda, in CAMEROON, regretfully. For while it is true that several of the leaders of the secessionist camp in the English-speaking area have understood what is at stake and agreed to sign a general ceasefire, “they don’t actually have much influence on those fighting on the ground.”
The same story is playing out in the Al-Hasakah region of northern Syria where “the warplanes still fill the sky and the attacks continue unabated”, according to Msgr Nidal Thomas, vicar of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Jazeera—Hasaké Governorate. “We have not had more than two or three consecutive days of peace since the outbreak of the Coronavirus,” he explained. The pandemic has caught the country in a state of extreme fragility after nine years of war. Syria has lost 60% of its doctors, and no more than a quarter of its hospital structures are still functioning. At the same time, it is facing the same economic crisis as neighbouring Lebanon, having been affected by a dollar shortage and likewise suffering international sanctions which weigh heavily on the economy.
Similarly, in PHILIPPINES where the ceasefire between the government and the Communist guerrilla movement, the New People’s Army (NPA), has not held. According to Father Sebastian D’Ambra, a missionary priest working in the region, “there are continuing skirmishes and attacks by [the Islamist terrorist organization] Abu Sayyaf on the island of Jolo and in the Cotabato region” in the south of the country. Nonetheless, he acknowledges, “there is more restraint now, since both groups are frightened of the virus and there is a more visible presence on the part of the army.”
Tragedy Within Tragedy
Even if it no longer makes the headlines, war is still continuing in the Donbass region of UKRAINE, as we are reminded by Bishop Pavio Honcharuk of Kharkiv, whose diocese lies partially within the conflict zone. And the arrival of the Coronavirus has merely revealed just how much “the oligarchical system has damaged the Ukrainian healthcare network, especially in the countryside. The pandemic has laid bare the widespread corruption among our leaders, which is a consequence of the history of the country. Throughout the 70 years of Communism, family and traditional values were weakened and undermined by the government,” he says. The loss of a spirit of solidarity is endangering the lives of the poorest people in the country, he believes.
In Africa, in NIGERIA, poverty is also one of the factors of concern to the Church. “The principal danger linked to Covid-19 for the country is the risk of famine it poses for the poorest of the people. It is destabilizing an economy that is already a fragile one,” explains Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, of Abuja, the Nigerian capital. He also emphasizes that even since the arrival of the pandemic “the country is still at the mercy of sporadic terrorist attacks by Boko Haram, especially in the northeast of the country.”
In IRAQ, where the so-called Islamic State/Daesh was officially wiped out in 2017, it appears that there are still terrorists active in the regions of Kirkuk and the Saladin governorate in the northeast. And the arrival of Covid-19 has found the social services in crisis. “They have never recovered from the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003,” says Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphaël I Sako of Baghdad. “There are so many problems,” he adds, “not enough money, not enough hospitals, doctors or medical equipment… And the lockdown restrictions are alien to the local culture, especially for the men.” Nevertheless, with 5,000 cases of the virus now registered, “people ought to stay at home. It’s the only way to stay safe.”
A Church With Open Doors
“The violence in our society has not diminished,” says Archbishop Carlos Garfias Merlos, the vice president of the MEXICAN bishops’ conference, sadly. It seems that the drug traffickers have not heard the message of Pope Francis. But in these circumstances the Church continues, more than ever, to “open her doors to the victims of the aggression,” he adds. During this phase of confinement, the Church must be a Church which “goes out to the margins,” to use the expression of Pope Francis.
Likewise, in the CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC the armed groups that are plaguing the country have clearly not received the message about the ceasefire, says Coadjutor Bishop Bertrand Guy Richard Appora-Ngalanibé of Bambari. “Sadly, in some areas of the Central African Republic, the armed groups are engaged in strategic battles aimed at extending their supremacy and continuing to pillage the natural resources of the country,” he grieves. Nonetheless, he believes that the interfaith initiatives are demonstrating that this crisis may be an opportunity to reforge the damaged bonds with their fellow citizens. “With the support of our Protestant and Muslim brethren, gathered under the Interfaith Platform of Religions in Bambari, we are striving to carry out awareness-raising campaigns on this pandemic, since many people still don’t appreciate its extent or its danger.”
Faced by these continuing conflicts, ACN is hoping to remind people that these wars are continuing, despite the pandemic. The charity can only call on those responsible to embrace a ceasefire and pray that the international community will also engage with the problem and not merely indulge in rhetoric.