By Olivier Labesse
In 2012, a military coup plunged the West African nation of Mali into chaos as jihadist militants threatened to overrun the nation. France troops restored order, particularly in the country’s south, with the north of Mali remaining fragile despite a peace agreement between the government and rebel forces. To bolster the local Church, Pope Francis last month named Archbishop Jean Zerbo of Bamako the nation’s first cardinal. In an interview with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Jonas Dembélé of Kayes discussed the situation in his nation.
How stable do you think the situation is in Mali following the most recent clashes between government troops and rebels in Bamako and Timbuktu?
Peace in Mali is still not secure, but the events which are convulsing do not affect people’s everyday existence. There have been isolated attacks, but this has not paralyzed daily life. In my diocese of Kayes, in the west of Mali, we lead a normal life, and the priests are not under threat. Muslims and Christians are still engaged in a dialogue there, as they are in the rest of the country. The exceptions here are Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu, where priests cannot freely enter. Apart from this, our missionary work can carry on as usual elsewhere in the country.
So, in Mopti, the Christians cannot freely practice their faith?
No, in Mopti, life was already complicated for Christians back in 2013, and today, Islamists even attack Muslims. In Gao, on the other hand, the faithful manage to hold Mass. But without priests, since these are refused access to the city.
In two or three places on the border to Burkina Faso, Christian communities have already been prevented from gathering for Mass. This has been done by stopping them from ringing the bells and forcing them to close the church.
What is the relationship between the Church and the Malian government?
As ever, the Church maintains good relations with government. It has committed itself energetically to the matter of schools, the health system, and sustainable development. The population has responded positively to this because our efforts benefit, without exception, the entire population of Mali. The government has always sought collaboration with the Church and the bishops’ conference.
Mali is a secular republic. But certain groups are still clearly trying to establish an Islamic state.
That’s true. It’s repeatedly stated that the Muslims represent the majority in Mali. And since we live in a democracy, some people want to exploit this fact, on the principle: “We are the majority, and why should we remain in a secular state when Muslims make up 95 percent of the Malian population?” But Mali decided on the separation of religion and state a long time ago. This decision didn’t come from the Christians or adherents of the traditional religions. Although they are Muslims, even the Malian intellectuals know that, in the modern-day world, secularism is the essential condition for a more peaceful co-existence. But the politicians sometimes succumb to the temptation to orient themselves too much according to the interests of certain groups on whose votes they depend.
Has the Church traditionally had a good relationship with the Muslims?
Mali has offered an example of a well-functioning dialogue between Christians and Muslims for the whole of West Africa. But the Malian form of Islam is a more tolerant one. This is continuing, but since 2008, we have been observing a gradual Arabization of Islam, and this makes the situation overall more difficult. In the villages, you normally encounter families which include Christians, Muslims, and adherents of the traditional religions. Unfortunately, we can see today the growth of certain intolerant groups.
How do you assess the future of Mali? How can peace be established?
There is cause for hope. We are trying to make people aware of the fact that, if we wish to create peace, we will first have to start the process in our own families. Only then will we be able to continue with our efforts in our districts, villages, and regions to enable peace to spread throughout the country. We also call on politicians to focus in particular on the welfare of Malians and to give priority to the common good over the interests of individual groups who do not have peaceful intentions. There are individuals of good will who are already working in this direction with the support of the international community and the Economic Community of West African States. There are signs of improvement, but the process will take time.