Bishop-elect Christian Carlassare of Rumbek, who was shot Sunday night after just two months on the job, has said he is not intimidated by the attack and intends to return as soon as possible to be with his people.
In comments to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera the day after he was shot, Carlassare spoke of the attack, saying, “If they wanted to intimidate me, they got the opposite effect.”
Carlassare, an Italian Comboni missionary who was appointed to Rumbek just two months ago, was shot the night between April 25 and 26, just after midnight, when two armed men broke into the bishop’s house and shot him in the legs.
He survived the assault but suffered significant blood loss and as a result was transferred to a hospital in Nairobi for a transfusion.
So far 12 people have been arrested in Rumbek in relation to the attack, including one priest and several laypeople with prominent positions in the diocese. According to Nigrizia, the official magazine of the Comboni missionary order, they were arrested April 26, just hours after the attack took place.
Authorities at this point believe the attack on Carlassare was ethnically motivated, as Lake State, where Rumbek is located, has a large Denka population, which has long sought to secure positions of prominence in both national and ecclesial leadership.
Those arrested in relation to the attack hold ties to the Denka ethnic group, including the diocesan coordinator, and were apparently suspected due to a phone left at the scene of the attack believed to belong to one of the gunmen, according to Nigrizia.
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, who also belongs to the Denka ethnic group, issued a statement April 26 after news of the attack went public, expressing “dismay” at the incident and asking South Sudanese citizens “to condemn the criminals who committed this heinous crime in the harshest possible terms” and to ensure that “no other similar acts are committed against the clergy.”
Kiir asked that Lake State authorities carry out “a rapid investigation” to bring justice to those behind the attack.
“If those who have carried out this shameful act did so to intimidate the Church, they were mistaken,” he said, adding that Carlassare “has been chosen to lead the diocese and the Lake State authorities will be on his side and will not allow they action of a few criminals to compromise the plans of ecclesial authorities.”
He wished Carlassare “a speedy recovery,” so that he can soon return to his people.
Carlassare in his interview with Corriere della Sera said he had not been told anything about the investigation or the suspects but insisted that “it’s normal for them to investigate Church circles too.”
“I wouldn’t rush too much, let the authorities do their investigations,” he said, adding that no matter who his attackers are, “I can only forgive. If something unpleasant comes out, it will help strengthen my community.”
He recalled how while on the way to the airport for his transfer to Nairobi, people flocked to the streets to greet him along the way, “showing me their love despite being in Rumbek for so few days.”
One woman, he said, stopped and called to him, saying, “Come back father; if you have to die, we will die together.”
Pointing to the fact that his diocese is mostly Denka, Carlassare noted that at least 10 years of his ministry was spent with another tribe called the Nuer. He grew so close to the community, he said, that he was eventually given the nickname, “white-Nuer.”
However, regardless of what ethnic rivalries might be at play, Carlassare said that “first of all I am an Italian-South Sudanese struck by the same violence of which they are victims for decades.”
He recalled the attack, saying he tried to reason with the intruders when they forced open his door by asking what they wanted, and if they were looking for something in particular.
“I have enough experience to know that in such circumstances you have to react firmly but without taking them head on,” he said. Yet his attempts to negotiate with his attackers were in vain, as they began to fire without giving him a reply.
In that moment, Carlassare said he was sure “they would kill me. I just thought, so be it, I’m ready. My life is given. And that’s it.”
For a moment he tried to calculate an escape route, but gave up on the idea because, in his view, “it would have been absurd to have myself killed with a bullet in the back.”
Instead, Carlassare said that he “talked, and talked, and they didn’t answer. Then the shots went off, six or seven, and four hit me in the legs. When I was already on the ground, I think they hit me on the head.”
Soon after he was shot, three priests came and thought he was dead, however, Carlassare said he was alert the whole time, but was not able to speak until a few seminarians arrived and took him to the hospital.
He described the gunmen as two young people he had never seen before, but from the way they acted he said he could tell “they didn’t want to hit me as a person, that’s clear, they aimed at the role I hold” as head of the diocese.
In his interview, Carlassare said he plans to go back to Rumbek as soon as he has recovered.
“My people are suffering more than me because of what happened,” he said, voicing confidence that both he and his community will come out of the incident “stronger and, I hope, wiser than before.”
Although he knew his role as bishop would involve some risk, Carlassare said he never expected a premeditated attack, which he believes was naïve on his part.
“This land has suffered such and so much violence that it has forgotten the value of dialogue. People know love, but they need to be educated in peace,” he said.