A missed opportunity for global peace in the time of the pandemic

OVER TWO MONTHS AGO, UN Secretary General  Antonio Guterres issued an appeal for a worldwide ceasefire in the hope that warring parties would instead concentrate on the battle against COVID-19. Soon after, the Pope echoed this appeal. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) recently contacted Church leaders in various conflict zones to find out what the result has been of the calls for peace. Their conclusion: despite the COVID-19 pandemic, war and terrorism have continued. Here is a survey of the situation in Cameroon, Syria, the Philippines, Ukraine, Nigeria, Iraq, Mexico and the Central African Republic—as seen through the eyes of local bishops and priests.

“Here the conflict is continuing,” says Archbishop Andrew Nkea of Bamenda in Cameroon. For while it is true that several of the leaders of the secessionist camp in the English-speaking area have agreed to sign a general ceasefire, “they don’t actually have much influence on those fighting on the ground.”

War in eastern Ukraine

In north-east Syria, in the Hassaké region, where Turkey is fighting Kurdish forces, “warplanes still fill the sky and the attacks continue unabated,” reports Mgr. Nidal Thomas, vicar of the Chaldean Catholic Church in the Jazeera- Hasaké Governorate. “We have not had more than two or three consecutive days of peace since the outbreak of the Coronavirus,” he adds. The pandemic has caught Syria in a state of extreme fragility, after nine years of war. Syria has lost 60 percent of its doctors, and no more than a quarter of its hospitals are still functioning. International sanctions weigh heavily on the economy.

In the Philippines, the ceasefire between the government and the communist guerrilla movement, the New People’s Army (NPA), has not held. According to Father Sebastian D’Ambra, a missionary priest working in the region, “there are continuing skirmishes and attacks by [the Islamist terrorist organization] Abu Sayyaf on the island of Jolo and in the Cotabato region,” in the south of the country. Nonetheless, he notes that “there is more restraint now, since both groups are frightened of the virus and there is a more visible presence on the part of the army.”

It no longer makes the headlines, but war is still continuing in the Donbass region of Ukraine, as confirmed by Bishop Pavio Honcharuk of Kharkiv, whose diocese lies partially within the conflict zone. The pandemic has merely revealed just how much “the oligarchical system has damaged the Ukrainian health-care network, especially in the countryside. The pandemic has laid bare the widespread corruption among our leaders, which is a consequence of the history of the country. Throughout the 70 years of Communism, family and traditional values were weakened and undermined by the government,” says the bishop.

In Nigeria, poverty is one of the factors of concern to the Church. “The principal danger linked to COVID-19 for the country is the risk of famine it poses for the poorest of the people. It is destabilizing an economy that is already a fragile one,” says Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Abuja, the Nigerian capital. He also emphasizes that, even after the arrival of the pandemic, “the country is still at the mercy of sporadic terrorist attacks by Boko Haram, especially in the north-east of the country.”

Archbishop Kaigama

In Iraq, where ISIS was defeated in 2017, it appears there still are terrorists active in the regions of Kirkuk and the Saladin governorate in the north-east. And the arrival of COVID-19 has found the social services in crisis. “They have never recovered from the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003,” says Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako of Baghdad. “There are so many problems,” he adds, “not enough money, not enough hospitals, doctors or medical equipment… And the lockdown restrictions are alien to the local culture, especially for the men.” Nevertheless, with 5,000 cases of the virus now registered, the Patriarch says, “people ought to stay at home. It’s the only way to stay safe.”

“The violence in our society has not diminished,” says Archbishop Carlos Garfias Merlos, the vice president of the Mexican bishops’ conference. In these circumstances, the Church continues, more than ever, to “open her doors to the victims of the aggression,” he adds. During this phase of lockdown the Church must be a Church which “goes out to the margins,” as the Pope has insisted.

In the Central African Republic, armed groups continue fighting each other and causing havoc in the country, says Coadjutor Bishop Bertrand Guy Richard Appora-Ngalanibé of Bambari. “Sadly, in some areas of the Central African Republic, the armed groups are engaged in strategic battles aimed at extending their supremacy and continuing to pillage the natural resources of the country,” the bishop continues. On a positive note, he reports that interfaith initiatives demonstrate that the ongoing crisis may be an opportunity to heal damaged communal bonds. “With the support of our Protestant and Muslim brethren, gathered under the Interfaith Platform of Religions in Bambari, we are striving to carry out awareness raising campaigns on this pandemic, since many people still don’t appreciate its extent or its danger.”

—Amélie de la Hougue