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Why a Catholic Priest Saved the Lives of 1000 Muslims

Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch

Sister Grace Candiru - published on 01/29/15

Exclusive interview with Father Kinvi, a hero for peace in the war with radical Islam

Father Bernard Kinvi is a 32-year-old priest from Togo who runs a mission in the Central African Republic.  In early 2014, Father Kinvi singlehandedly saved the lives of more than 1,000 Muslims fleeing rampaging militias, gathering them from their homes and sheltering them in the local church. He did so at great risk to himself.

Christians and Muslims have generally coexisted in peace in the Central African Republic, but in late 2012, a largely Muslim rebel force known as Seleka took control of a number of towns before moving south towards the capital, Bangui. CAR President François Bozizé struck a deal with them, but the peace did not hold. By March last year the Seleka had overrun Bangui.

When violence reached Bossemptélé, about 186 miles northwest of Bangui, some injured Seleka fighters sought treatment at Father Kinvi’s mission hospital. “I had to forbid them to come to the hospital with weapons,” Father Kinvi, who is of the Camillian Order, told The Irish Times. “Local people were terrified of them and decided to rebel against them. Then they established the anti-balaka.”

For his rescue work, Human Rights Watch honored Father Kinvi last fall with its Alison Des Forges Award. 

Aleteia interviewed Father Kinvi by email.

Can you describe relations among the local community in Bossemptélé before the onset of the conflict?

Before the start of the military-political crisis, the population of Bossemptélé lived in a peaceful cohesion between Christians, Muslims and animists. Life was complementary. Muslims mostly worked in trade. The Fulani were cattle herders, while the majority of Christians and animists worked in agriculture. And it is they who provided food (cassava, maize and ground nuts) to Muslims and Fulani. Everyone needed his neighbor in order to live better. Of course, problems were not lacking, but they were not excessive.

According to your experience, what fueled the conflict in the Central African Republic?

Above all, I sincerely believe that it is the corruption and bad governance that are the cause of this conflict. Also, the majority of people live without electricity, without access to clean water or healthcare or education, while others live in opulence, plundering gold, diamonds, wood, which should be for everyone. Endless abuse and corruption have engendered despair and anger. This accumulated anger generated a spiral of violence and revenge which unfortunately persists to this day.

What is the current situation of the conflict in the Central African Republic?

To the west of the country there is an uneasy calm. Certainly the anti-balakas militias are still well armed, better than at the beginning of the war. But the violence has decreased significantly.

However, in the east of the country, especially in the Bambari area, violence is still very common because Selekas and anti-Balakas are still present. It is very difficult for them to live together.

How did your team manage to handle two conflicting groups without taking sides with any?

At the height of the conflict, I gathered the hospital staff and told them: "Here we are a Catholic hospital. We treat everyone equally, whether it’s your friend or your enemy. He killed your brother or raped your sister? When he crossed the threshold of the hospital sick or injured, you take care of him. If you agree, then you can stay. If not, you still have a chance to leave the hospital.”

So I gave the word to each member of my caregivers team, and I heard everyone say in turn, "I remain to care for everyone without exception." It was a very emotional moment. They had not only spoken words, they were true to their commitment.

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