ROME — Pope Francis clearly wants to make his Jan. 31-Feb. 5 outing to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan about peace, not only within nations but also within Christianity itself, given that in South Sudan he’ll be joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland.
Officially speaking, religious freedom isn’t part of the pontiff’s agenda. Yet reality on the ground has ensured it has to be part of the subtext on his third trek to Africa since his election a decade ago.
More specifically, a pontiff who’s made outreach to Islam a cornerstone of his interfaith agenda will be forced to wrestle with the ugly face of Islamic radicalism and anti-Christian violence, in the wake of several high-profile atrocities in the run-up to his arrival.
In Congo itself, a Pentecostal church in the eastern city of Kasindi was targeted on Sunday, Jan. 15, as bombs exploded during a baptismal service, leaving 17 people dead and wounding at least 60 others.
In a condolence telegram dispatched Jan. 17, Francis assured the families impacted by the violence of his “compassion and closeness,” and entrusted the dead to God’s mercy, praying that “the affected may find consolation and confidence in God, invoking on them the gift of peace.”
Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Islamic State, with Congolese military officials blaming the rebel Allied Democratic Forces which is allied with ISIS. ADF attacks since April alone have killed at least 370 people, according to a U.N. report in December, along with several hundred kidnappings.
“Let the Congolese forces know that their continued attacks on the Mujahideen will only bring them more failure and losses,” the Islamic State group said in a statement after the Jan. 15 assault.
The attack in Congo came the same day as Father Isaac Achi was shot and burned to death inside his own rectory at Ss. Peter and Paul Parish in the northern Niger State of Nigeria. Another priest, Father Collins Omeh, was able to escape after being wounded, and described the scene.
According to Omeh, the gunmen shouted “Allahu Akbar” as they attacked the parish and held both priests at gunpoint. The two priests heard each other’s confessions before Achi urged Omeh to escape, taking a gunshot wound to his chest while Omeh was shot in the shoulder. The angered gunmen then set the rectory on fire, leaving Achi to die from his wounds, the flames, or both.
International Christian Concern, an ecumenical watchdog group on anti-Christian violence, rated Nigeria the single most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian in its 2022 report. During the previous year, some 6,000 Christians were estimated to have been killed for their faith in Africa’s most populous nation, more than the rest of the world combined. Most of the deaths came at the hands of Boko Haram, Nigeria’s homegrown Islamic insurgency which seeks to overthrow the government and establish a caliphate in the Muslim-dominated north.
In a tremendous irony, more than a decade ago Achi had been the pastor at St. Teresa’s Church outside the national capital of Abuja when it was bombed by Boko Haram on Christmas Day 2011, leaving 44 people dead and at least 60 injured. Two years later, Achi was also briefly kidnapped by militants before being released, meaning his entire priestly career was marked by the shadow of anti-Christian persecution.
Also in Nigeria, the Diocese of Ekiti in the southwestern part of the country has announced that one of its priests, Father Michael Olubunmi Olofinlade, was kidnapped Jan. 14. In general, the kidnapping of Catholic priests and other Christian clergy in Nigeria has been a growth industry in recent years.
Armed groups aim to extort ransoms from churches, or, failing a payoff, sometimes will kill their abductees as a warning.
Interestingly, the murder of Achi and the kidnapping of Olubunmi came just after the Catholic bishops of Nigeria had traveled to Abuja to meet President Muhammadu Buhari, telling him that “our church personnel have been frequent victims in terms of kidnapping or outright murder.”
Specifically, the bishops were reacting to a massacre at a Catholic church in Ondo State on Pentecost Sunday of last year, June 5, which left 40 people dead.
Elsewhere in Africa, Bishop Laurent Dabiré of Dori in Burkina Faso has warned that two-thirds of the country’s Sahel desert region is now controlled by Islamic terrorists, disrupting pastoral life for the Church and endangering peace and security.
A west African nation that’s majority Muslim but with a significant Christian minority, Burkina Faso has been the theater of accelerating terrorist activity. Human Rights Watch reports that attacks forced “over 237,000 people to flee their homes in 2021, bringing the total number of internally displaced people since 2016 to over 1.4 million, or 6 percent of the population.”
In Mozambique, an official of the South Africa Bishops’ Conference has warned that an anti-terrorist drive announced by the country’s military could boomerang, placing innocent civilians, including significant pockets of Christians, in harm’s way amid escalating violence.
In early January, an assault on two Christian villages in northern Mozambique by gunmen linked to a local branch of the Islamic State left two people dead and four injured. Since an ISIS-fueled insurgency began in October 2017, violence is believed to have caused 4,000 deaths in Mozambique and roughly 1 million persons displaced.
Among the dead is Sister Maria De Coppi, an Italian Comboni missionary who was slain Sept. 6, 2022, during a terrorist assault on a missionary hospital compound where she served. Two other religious sisters, one Italian and one Spanish, managed to escape.
As history’s first pope named “Francis,” the namesake of a saint who crossed battle lines during the Crusades in order to launch a dialogue with the Sultan of Egypt, Pope Francis doubtless will feel the need to walk a tightrope during his upcoming Africa swing.
He can’t ignore the carnage facing his own flock, but at the same time he won’t want to appear to be fanning the flames of sectarian rivalry or placing Muslim/Christian dialogue in jeopardy, thereby risking making things even worse.
Inevitably, how Francis threads that needle will form part of the drama of his trip — and, quite possibly, also set an example for the other Christians leaders who will be at his side, watching and listening very carefully.