Mali's Church mobilizes support in fight against rebels

The Catholic Church in Mali will seek a “mobilization of the Christian community” throughout Lent to help secure the future of the country, which is embroiled in a civil war triggered by Islamist rebels who have been fighting to overthrow the government for 10 months. 

During a Jan. 21-25 plenary meeting by the Catholic bishops in the country, the bishops wrote an open letter to the country’s acting president, Dioncounda Traoré, in which they expressed concern at the deteriorating humanitarian situation, describing it as “grave and has reached tragic proportions.” 

“We continue to believe a new Mali will emerge from this harsh ordeal, reconciled with itself and its values,” they wrote. “These are the values of faith, fear and respect of God, sincere fraternity between its different components, love of homeland and a sense of sacrifice.”

Devastating effects

Mali has been plunged into a crisis since the start of 2012, when ethnic Tuareg rebels took up arms and started a war to have a separate state. The Tuaregs were joined by Islamist fighters from Ansar Dine, a group that is linked to al-Qaida. Within a few months, they had taken large swaths of northern Mali. 

Mali has a population of about 15.5 million people, and about 90 percent of the population is Muslim. The Catholic population is about 200,000, and they are mostly in the north of the country. Since the start of the insurgency, the Church has been highlighting the humanitarian crisis in the country. 

The rebellion has had a devastating effect on the Christian population. As they captured town after town, the rebels introduced strict Shariah law. About 400,000 people have fled the fighting. Half of them have sought refuge in neighboring countries such as Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, and the other half has gone to the south of the country, which is controlled by the government. 

“This war has brought a lot of pain to the people of Mali, and we are praying to God every day asking him to end the suffering,” Edmond Dembele, secretary general of the Catholic bishops’ conference of Mali said. “As a Church, we are doing all we can to help the people.” 

The rebellion took a new turn when a military coup was staged in March 2012. The rebels took advantage of the instability and began to advance toward Bamako, the capital. 

Alarmed by the turn of events, the government sought international help. On Jan. 11, France, Mali’s former colonial power, deployed troops to the country and began attacking rebel strongholds. This has enabled the Malian army to retake several towns that the Islamists had captured such as Diabaly and Douentza, about 250 miles north of Bamako. On Jan. 28, French forces drove rebels out of Timbuktu. 

Neighboring African states have also pledged to send a combined force of 5,000 troops to help restore order in the country.

Humanitarian support

Humanitarian agencies have been trying to assist the people who have been affected by the war. The president of Caritas Mali, Archbishop Jean Zerbo of Bamako, on Jan. 18 asked for a humanitarian corridor to be opened to allow these agencies to do their work. He also appealed to the global Caritas network and the international community to help those affected by the crisis. 

“A new period of suffering is beginning for the people of Mali. We would welcome support so that we can help the increasing number of displaced and refugees,” Archbishop Zerbo said. 

Caritas has provided free food to more than 43,000 internally displaced people and Malian refugees in Niger. Caritas also supported the development of a Caritas Regional Response for Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Niger as a contingency plan for the ongoing military intervention. It has supported internally displaced people in Mali through the pre-positioning of equipment; food such as rice, millet, sorghum, beans and oil; and nonfood items such as tents, blankets and health kits. 

Catholic Relief Services has also been offering humanitarian assistance, which includes distributing emergency food. 

"CRS has been helping families who fled northern Mali since the beginning of the crisis last year. For those who came to the Mopti region in the middle of the country, we’ve distributed food, cash, and toiletries, built latrines and kitchen sites at a camp for displaced people. We've reached over 7,000 households so around 50,000 people. In light of the military intervention, we’ve been assessing what the needs of the new influx of people are, and are holding further distributions, as well as working with partners to co-ordinate and to try and get as much funding as we can to help more people. In the capital Bamako, we're continuing to help those who have fled with monthly cash distributions. We select the most vulnerable people and give them money to help cover basic needs like food, health costs, school fees or rent, if they’re not staying with a host family. So far, we're helping around 4,000 Bamako-based displaced people but that will rise when new funding comes through. CRS has been working in Mali since 1999, and we’re carrying on our other, non emergency projects as best we can. With the recent food crisis in the Sahel region, we’ve been doing agriculture, nutrition, boosting community infrastructures like water holes, education and food security projects – like school feeding. We’re in around 300 schools, reaching about 75,000 children in two vulnerable regions, making sure kids get a hot, nutritious meal each day, and the vitamins they need." Helen Blakesley, the regional information officer for CRS, told Our Sunday Visitor. 

The Mali crisis is likely to stabilize after the positive response by the international community to appeals by the country’s government to help it defeat the insurgency. A donor conference was held at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Jan. 28 to support military operations against the rebels. African leaders and international officials pledged about $455 million, including more than $120 million from Japan and $96 million from the United States. 

“We all know the gravity of the crisis,” Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the African Union commission chairwoman, said. “It is a situation that requires a swift and effective international response, for it threatens Mali, the region, the continent and even beyond.” 

The U.S. government has provided transport planes to help ferry French weapons and troops and has offered to share intelligence with France from surveillance aircraft, including unmanned Global Hawk spy planes. Niger’s Defence Minister Karidjo Mahamadou said on Jan. 30 that his country was ready to host a base for U.S. drones monitoring movements by al-Qaida-linked groups in northern Mali.

Human rights violations

However, even as light appears at the end of the tunnel signaling the imminent defeat of the rebels, human-rights groups have expressed concern that atrocities are being committed by the Malian army against Arabs and Tuaregs. 

Amnesty International says that it has documented evidence of abuse by the Malian army, including extrajudicial killings. It says that last September, a group of 16 Muslim preachers composed of Malian and Mauritanian nationals were arrested then executed by the army in Diabaly. 

Human Rights Watch also raised similar concerns in December. The U.S.-based organization wrote to Malian Prime Minister Diango Sissoko and told him that he should take urgent measures to end rights abuses by the security forces and address rising ethnic tensions linked to the occupied northern provinces.Human Rights Watch said that pro-government militias and ethnically allied youth groups have prepared lists of people in the north who would be targeted for reprisal once the government forces retake control. 

“Mali’s new prime minister needs to tackle an array of human-rights problems, but an abusive military and rising ethnic tensions in the country should top the list,” Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said. “If not addressed, these abuses will seriously interfere with organizing national elections and worsen conditions in the north.” 

For sustainable peace to prevail in Mali after the Islamists are defeated, the concerns raised by the human-rights groups will need to be addressed. The government should be fair to all citizens so as to bring reconciliation among all tribes. 

Charles Saka is the pseudonym of a journalist reporting from Africa.