In an exclusive interview with the Portuguese national office of the international Catholic pastoral charity and Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International), Bishop Antonio Juliasse, the apostolic administrator of the diocese of Pemba, in the province of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique, describes the situation his diocese has been going through over the past six months, since he took over from Bishop Luiz Fernando Lisboa. Among other things he spoke of the urgent need to continue providing humanitarian aid to the population and spoke words of great praise and gratitude for the work already done by ACN International in support of the Church in this diocese in northern Mozambique, which has suffered from attacks by armed rebels ever since 2017.
What is your assessment of your first six months in charge of the diocese of Pemba?
A favourable one, on balance, because on the various fronts the diocese is working on I have been able to make some contribution. I arrived one month after the attack on the town of Palma, an event that increased the sense of insecurity throughout the province of Cabo Delgado. That event left us all very shaken. There were many phone calls from the general superiors of the religious congregations, wondering whether it would be advisable or not to withdraw their members from the diocese of Pemba. I believe we got through that time together, and it was good to find a way in the darkness and good that God was with us at that moment, helping us to make a deeper discernment. Good also to discover this deeper perspective of our mission and our Christian commitment, and our response likewise to the dimension of martyrdom – since nobody goes looking for martyrdom, yet it is something that can happen at any moment.
“We may well be at risk, but at the same time we are here on mission, and we are here for Jesus. We have to stay on here.” I was deeply moved to hear responses like these from the missionaries and their superiors. There was also another front to work on, more humanitarian in nature, namely the arrival of the refugees, in regard to which although I was not directly involved in the first wave, I certainly was in the second major wave of refugees from Palma and the other areas that were under attack.
Have the recent successes in the struggle against the insurgents made it possible to think of a return by the priests and religious to their original missions?
No, not for the moment. I don’t know for sure if all these areas have been liberated. We are still waiting for proof of this. One of the things is that the president speaks in order to encourage the country, and that is all very well; in order to create a certain sense of hope for the country, which also makes some sense. But in practice, in the actual situation on the ground, there is still a great deal to be done.
So how is the security situation in the region?
Recently, one of our missionary priests, Father Fonseca, was in Mocímboa da Praia and in Palma. In both places the security situation was still very precarious. There has been an advance by part of a joint force of Rwandan soldiers, accompanied by the Mozambican defence and security forces, who have pushed into areas that were formerly controlled entirely by the insurgents. But there is still no guarantee of security, no guarantee that these areas are really safe to return to. Nor are we, as a Church, going to advise anyone to return yet. I believe we still need more time. In the measure that the people themselves return, it will also be possible to assess the possibility of the missionaries returning there. But as far as we are concerned, the indicator will be the knowledge that there really is security on the ground. We can’t expose people who have been through such suffering in crisis and are still traumatised by it, to return to situations of fear and conflict and the risk of being maltreated as they were before. It will take a little more time yet.
And what about the psychological support being offered by the Church?
The Church is very involved in this work of psychological support. We have trained teams going into all the places where the refugees are living. We understand that it is not always easy to do, since psychological support of this kind requires rather more dedication and what we call “walking together”, and there are so many people involved. We simply don’t have the physical capacity to accompany everyone at the same time. But wherever we do go, we identify those who most need support and then held in a dedicated manner. At the same time, our psychological and social support also involves the strengthening of the existing family and community networks, so that these networks can also function as a means of healing for their members.
Is it known who was responsible for the destruction of the churches, especially those in Mocímboa da Praia? Was it the terrorists, or the South African mercenaries?
Did the destruction come from above, from the bombs dropped by the helicopters of the DAG (Dyck Advisory Group), a private South African military group that has been helping the Mozambican defence and security forces to fight the insurgency since April 2020? Or was it from those who were there on the ground, occupying the area? Both in Muidumbe and in Mocímboa da Praia the question is the same: Who was responsible?
If we were certain that the destruction was carried out by the insurgents, we would be united in our sentiments, but since we don’t know, our feelings are rather different. This question is so far still unresolved. In Palma, when the insurgents entered, the church was intact. They didn’t touch the church, or enter it, or even the presbytery. The insurgents did not touch anything. There were people there who witnessed this. So we still are in doubt as to who it was vandalised these things, including the property of the Catholic Church.
The destruction was not so recent, but the pictures of it are. We have to be careful here. For example, the destruction of the mission in Muidumbe is not recent. It happened some time ago, when Bishop Luiz was still here. And likewise in Mocímboa da Praia, nobody had a photo of it. So we can’t say if the destruction was more recent or if it happened during the time when the helicopters of these South African mercenaries were operating in support of the Mozambican defence and security forces. It’s possible that everything happened during that time, bearing in mind that the insurgents might have taken refuge inside, thereby prompting the destruction. It is also possible that the insurgents, being present in Mocímboa da Praia, were the ones to destroy the church, because it didn’t matter to them… This is the doubt that still remains and has not yet been resolved. We have pictures, but these pictures in themselves don’t tell us, they don’t say when the destruction happened or how it happened. We still have to find the answer to this question.
What are the most urgent needs now in the diocese of Pemba?
When we visit the refugee camps, we see all kinds of people – children, adolescents, adults, old people… Every one of them has his or her own story to tell, a difficult story because it is a story of suffering. And every one of them wants us to listen to them and to hear their concerns. And these concerns start with the most basic necessities. There are many things that are urgent. I am not giving priority only to emergency aid, but food and healthcare continue to be an urgent need for this great number of refugees. There has been a lack of basic medicines everywhere. Recently, Father Fonseca was able to go to Palma and he explained to me that there are many people there with health problems.
I myself visited a refugee camp (resettlement camp) in the district of Palama, where I saw many families stretched out in the darkness of their homes. I went to see them and found that they were ill. I asked them if they had been to the medical aid centre and were taking their medication, and they all told me that they had been, but they didn’t have any medication there. This is also an urgent aspect of our aid programme, because otherwise there could be an outbreak of certain diseases in the refugee camps and then we would have a really serious problem on our hands.
It is also urgent to provide these people with COVID-19 vaccines, since there are so many of them, and when there are distributions in the refugee camps, the people naturally crowd together in order to be able to hear their names called and get hold of the aid on offer.
As far as food aid is concerned, the people eat one day, and next day they need food again, and so it continues. It’s not something you can give once only; it has to be ongoing, until the families are able to support themselves. The sowing time will start soon, with the rains, especially the maize, yucca, and the other staple food crops. We have to make sure that the families have the necessary means, and this involves having a mattock, an axe, everything they need to work the fields. But at the same time we also have to make sure they have enough land to grow their crops on.
And what about the spiritual dimension?
The other priority for us as a Church is their spiritual support. The psychological support is already ongoing, but we now also have to focus on spiritual support. This is a priority for the Church and requires a pastoral outreach involving the integration of the refugees in the Christian and religious life of the places where they find themselves. There are tensions between the local people and those who have welcomed the refugees. This is also one of the aspects where the Church has a role to play, starting with the local Christian leaders and influencing the local leaders to promote a climate of friendly coexistence between the refugees and those who were already living in the area.
What would you like to say to the benefactors of ACN?
The foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is very important to us, it has been a companion, a close and friendly helping hand, always walking together with the Church in Mozambique and at the present time it continues to walk alongside us from many different places in the world. We have a helping hand that we can always rely on, and ever since I have been here in Cabo Delgado, I have been conscious of the very special interest that ACN has taken in us.
On behalf of the diocese of Pemba and all the people of Cabo Delgado, I would like to thank you for all the financial aid we have received and all the particular ways you have helped, and also all the help that we have received through what we cannot see, namely your prayers.
I would like to thank all our brothers and sisters in the faith and all those people of goodwill, all who are aware of Cabo Delgado through the work of ACN and who are contributing towards alleviating the suffering of its people. I thank them from the bottom of my heart, and we will continue to give thanks, because I am on the spot and know what this means to us – that we are not alone.
Somebody asked me the other day if I felt abandoned, if I felt that Cabo Delgado was a long way away from the rest of the world. I answered that while we may be distant geographically from the countries that are supporting us, we nonetheless feel we are very close, because they are present to us in all that they are sharing with the people here. We look forward to being able to continue feeling this closeness, because the problems here in Cabo Delgado are still very serious, and there is a great deal of suffering.