A week ago, Sunday middnight at around 12:30, with premeditation and treachery, two armed men shouting wake up Fr. Christian. When he opens the door of his room, they shoot at him six or seven bullets. They wound him on his legs and they flee immediately. The outcome could have been tragic and fatal, but fortunately Fr. Christian seems to be recovering.
This took place in Rumbek, South Sudan, a country facing the worst displacement crisis of the continent with more than 4 million persons forcibly displaced. South Sudan does not manage to break the spiral of conflict fuelled by the fight over land, livestock, gold and oil. Not even the pope kneeling and pleading could convince the leaders of the different sides to put an end to so much death.
Sadly, so many have also experienced the consequences of violence but are no longer with us. We still remember with grief the assasination of our fellow jesuit, Victor-Luke two and a half years ago in the same area of the country.
As days go by, perplexity gives way to strong feelings of outrage and dismayal. Fr. Christian Carlassare, an Italian-born Comboni missionary, 43 years old (my age mate) has been in South Sudan for over 15 years and was recently appointed Bishop of Rumbek. He and I meet in Juba, the capital, and used to go on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist with the internally displaced population at the outskirts of the city.
I feel dismayed when I think of the Christian – specifically the Catholic – community in Rumbek, a diocese that had been without a bishop for 10 years. There, the message of the gospel meets great resistance, given a local culture marked by violence and revenge as well as exclusivistic understanding of ethnic identity. Following the armed assault on the Bishop in péctore, several people are being investigated, including priests and even the diocesan coordinator (who plays the role of the bishop in the diocese until somebody is appointed). Media outlets have indicated that the shots were an intimidation and a warning, a rough welcome to a land where blood is thicker than water. Is not coincidental that Fr. Christian is a foreigner and even more importantly that he has worked many years with the ethnic group historically at odds with the inhabitants of Rumbek. I am terrified at the prospect that perhaps behind the attack there are priests and people with authority within the Catholic community. If this were true, it is a clear evidence that the cancer of the unscrupulous kleptocracy of the political and military elites has not spared the Church.
Even more so though, I feel outraged because the so-called “developed” countries are increasing military spending and making a killing from the indiscriminate arms trade thus preventing South Sudan from overcoming years of armed conflict. In so many countries the pervasive presence of small and light weapons is fatal. In Rumbek, boys as young as 10 years old graze their cows with a Kalashnikov on their shoulders. Marcelina, the mother of P. Christian, speaking from Italy could have not put it more clearly:
“Aside from what happened, I wonder: where did these weapons that shot my son came from? Certainly not South Sudan. They come from our Western world. It is all very well to pray for Christian and for South Sudan and also to organise a prayer vigil, but why not daring to transform these factories of weapons to build peace in the world? All the energy, intelligence and technology that we put in the service of weapons and death, why not turn them into tools that could produce life and hope for human beings?”
The message of forgiveness that Fr. Christian has offered to his assailants is a powerful testimony of someone who taps his strenght from a deep faith in Jesus of Nazareth. It is also an example of a Church called to live love in difficult times. Because love and hope are not only shown when everything goes well and everything seems to be fine, but rather, when things are getting tough. In South Sudan, as in so many other places, we need a love that forgives, a love that works to transform a hostile and violent local culture, a love that unmasks the scourge of a corrupt elite and a love that calls for structural changes in our profoundly unjust world marked by the folly of the arms trade.
This is the call to live love in time of bullets. For to those of us residing in Spain it is a good reminder that there are more bullets than those in the envelopes and local politics in Madrid. Or even to put more simply, as my grandmother used to say: “It is better not to play with fire”.