Mozambique bishop decries ‘tragedy’ of persistent Islamist attacks

CONTINUING ISLAMIST attacks in northern Mozambique have already claimed 500 lives and left thousands displaced, reported Bishop Luiz Fernando Lisboa of the Diocese of Pemba in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need.

Violence has affected the northernmost region of Mozambique ever since October 2017 and shows no signs of coming to an end. Bishop Lisboa confirmed that there were “six attacks” in the province of Cabo Delgado on Jan. 29 and 30 January this year, causing a general exodus of the population and leaving behind a broad swath of destruction in villages. The bishop described the attacks as “a tragedy.” One of them “targeted the agricultural school in Bilibiza, a teacher training school, with more than 500 students,” he added.

Bishop Lisboa (r)

“The school was burned down, then [the attackers] smashed up other shops and businesses nearby,” the bishop said, adding: “it is a sad fact that the military and security forces are unable to contain these attacks without international support. If the government had done something to improve conditions, then perhaps this problem would have been resolved, but instead many people are dying.”

There are no official statistics, but the bishop is certain that at least 500 people have been killed since late October 2017, when the attacks on villages, administrative centers and army personnel began. The attackers have left decapitated bodies behind to sow terror.

“The villages are being left empty, and people are not planting their crops. That means that there will be hunger, and we will have thousands of internally displaced people,” the bishop said. According to the UN, there are some 60,000 IDPs in northern Mozambique. The total number of IDPs “could be closer to 100,000,” Bishop Lisboa said, when those left homeless by last year’s devastating cyclones are included.

The bishop said that when the attacks began, local Muslim clearly distanced themselves from the violence and condemned it. The intensification of the attacks might signal a threat to regional security, with authorities in neighboring Tanzania also on the alert. Tanzania is regarded by terrorism experts as something of a safe haven and a place of recruitment for extremist militants, who can move easily across the border between the two countries. This would be “of grave concern,” said the bishop; “if there is an international or transnational network involved it means that they are much stronger and it will be much more difficult to put a stop to them.”

The Christian community in northern Mozambique feels threatened and the bishop knows that he might be a target himself. He said: “I am not afraid. I’m simply trying to fulfil my own role, which is to support the missionaries who are there, in the direct line of fire. They are extremely brave. They are the oasis that the people need, [trusted figures] to whom they can cry out and ask for help. They have not abandoned their posts and so I have no right to be afraid.”

ACN is supporting the Church in Mozambique in various ways, including by providing missionaries with vehicles and funding the formation of seminarians. Bishop Lisboa said that “this help is important, because without the support of international organizations like ACN, it would be very difficult for poor dioceses like ours—like the majority of African dioceses and many in Asia and Latin America—to fulfill” the Church’s mission.

—Paulo Aido