Often it seems like there’s nothing like a plea for peace to make the eyes glaze over. These petitions, it seems, are perpetual, especially in the conflict-ridden Middle East and, increasingly, in Africa.
But it was a plea for peace that Pope Francis made on Easter Sunday in his “urbi et orbi” message (to the city of Rome and to the world). In addition to praying for war-torn Syria, high on his list were the African nations of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, which are suffering from an Ebola outbreak.
And, the pope said, “We beg for an end to the conflicts in the Central African Republic and a halt to the brutal terrorist attacks in parts of Nigeria and the acts of violence in South Sudan.” Those words, heartfelt as they are, just scratch the surface of the violence sweeping those three nations. In Nigeria, hundreds of schoolgirls were captured in mid-April by the Islamic militant group Boku Haram. Some of the young women escaped, but many are still being held hostage.
In the Central African Republic, a months-long ethnic cleansing of Muslims by Christians — in retaliation for attacks by Muslims against Christians — recently resulted in the flight of Muslims from that nation’s capital. And the conflict is far from over. According to Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, “we have an entire generation of young Muslim men who have lost everything and are extremely angry. This will not be the last round of fighting.”
For peace to become a reality, the international community must take a stand.
Finally, in South Sudan, a political dispute toward the end of last year, coupled with the instability of an insufficient government, has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands and the displacement of more than 1 million.
Though South Sudan, in particular, is attempting peace talks, James Copnall, former BBC correspondent to Sudan, said in a recent interview with National Public Radio that no progress can be made on that front until the violence ceases.
“What that would require is a much-reinforced, monitoring, verification team — essentially military observers and if possible troops on the ground who could get in-between the warning parties and, if not stop them fighting, at least observe who is responsible for atrocities or breaking the cease-fire and make sure there are consequences for that. Until the fighting stops ... there’s no real prospect of getting to the serious negotiations that would eventually enable South Sudan to move forward to a more prosperous future.”
Pope Francis, as indicated in his Easter message, is one of an all-too-small pool of world leaders who keeps a watchful eye on these issues. But the leap from paying attention to effecting change can seem insurmountable. For peace to become a reality, the international community — including the United Nations, the African Union and Europe and the United States — must take a stand. The priority for all parties should be stopping the violence, offering assistance to refugees and protecting innocent lives. If third-party force is used, it’s essential that it be used in moderation. Outside observers must encourage interreligious dialogue, donate to organizations that care for the displaced and support peace efforts.
Pope Francis hasn’t forgotten the trials of these African countries, and we, as Christians, must not either. In his Easter message, Pope Francis reminded the world that Christians are an Easter people — those who look to a Christ who triumphed over hatred, evil and death. As we hold these war-torn African nations in our prayers, may we look to the same resurrected Christ, remembering his first words to the Apostles and to the world: Peace be with you.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor