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Religious Leaders in Mali Challenged to be “sentinels, mediators of Peace”

Jean Cardinal Zerbo, Archbishop of Bamako, Mali.

A Cardinal in Mali has challenged religious leaders to take up the role of safeguarding peace in the example of sentinels and foster dialogue to end the protracted armed conflict in the West African nation.

Mali has reportedly experienced a surge in violence involving both civilians and the military since 2016, with more than 4,000 deaths reported in 2019 alone as compared to some 770 three years earlier.

“In the midst of this difficult situation, we religious are sentinels and must act as mediators to encourage dialogue and a return to calm,” the Archbishop of Bamako, Jean Cardinal Zerbo told Agenzia Fides in an interview published Wednesday, June 24.

Cardinal Zerbo said he believes that “religious leaders have two main tasks.”

“On the one hand, as Ezekiel says, to behave like sentinels, not spies: when there is a threat we must warn and try to solve the problem before it explodes; it is a very big responsibility and if there are so many problems it means that the sentinels did not carry out their job well,” he explains.

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The second task, according to the Archbishop of Bamako, is that religious leaders “must be intercessors and when there is hostility between two groups, families or people, we have to mediate in truth.”

The Malian Cardinal emphasizes the need for turning to God in undertaking the twofold tasks saying, “It is also essential to always keep prayer alive for the country and for the protagonists so that God converts the heart. Now, it can be said, that the heart of many is of stone, it is up to us to make it flesh. Religions here seek a common line to promote peace.”

In February, Pope Francis hosted the President of the Republic of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and the two discussed, among other subjects, the humanitarian and security issues in the West African country.

“We feel that you are with Mali, continue to pray for us,” Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta told Pope Francis during the February 13 meeting.

After Sunday's Angelus prayer at St. Peter's Square on March 24 last year, Pope Francis called for prayers for the numerous victims of "brutal violence" in Mali and Nigeria, a day after at least 134 Fulani herders were attacked and killed by gunmen in central Mali.

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"May the Lord receive the victims, heal the injured, bring consolation to the families and convert cruel hearts," Pope Francis said, referencing attacks in the West African country.

During the June 24 interview, Cardinal Zerbo described the political situation in his country as “quite serious,” adding, “The problem at the moment is figuring out whether to hold new elections or leave everything as it is and try to find an agreement. I think it is essential to do everything to make the two groups talk; they must dialogue with each other and prevent further unrest.”

The 76-year-old Cardinal also explained that religious leaders in the country have set up a common platform to facilitate dialogue saying, “We have set up a group of religious: Muslim, Catholic and Protestant leaders in order to put pressure on the government and create conditions for dialogue. We meet regularly and try to speak directly with the protagonists.”

On June 14, Cardinal Zerbo and President Boubacar Keïta, visited the village of Sobane, in the Mopti region of central Mali, where an armed group carried out a massacre that claimed 35 victims of whom 24 were children.

“The state will proceed immediately to disarm anyone who illegally owns a firearm and those who refuse to surrender their arms will be sanctioned severely by the law,” the President said in Sobane Da, before visiting the wounded at a local hospital.

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The Government made a similar pledge after an attack in March by suspected Dogon militiamen that killed more than 150 Fulani villagers. But it has struggled to disarm militias, whom local communities look to for protection from Islamist militants and ethnic reprisals.

The violence between Dogon and Fulani and regular attacks by jihadist groups with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State have led many Malians to lose faith in their Government’s ability to protect them.

Cardinal Zerbon explained, “A real conflict is taking place in our Country. It would be important to understand what interests are behind it, because people, beyond more or less serious disputes, have always tried to live together peacefully and solve problems in a traditional way, without resorting to weapons. Now, however, weapons have invaded Mali.” 

He went to say, “There is a lot of confusion and it is not clear what kind of war is going on. Our intention is to talk to the parties in conflict; my fellow citizens have lived together for centuries; we cannot accept that they are now at war. With repeated meetings we try to encourage dialogue.”

According to UNHCR, the number of refugees in Mali has doubled since 2018. Between January and end of May, at least 210,000 internally displaced persons, and already 73,000 Malians, were forced to flee.

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“The population runs away from conflict because, in addition to the danger of weapons, markets are empty and there is difficulty to move,” the Cardinal said and continued, “The Church is active through Caritas; we are a minority and we do not have much, but we share what we have. We also asked Caritas Internationalis to come to our rescue.”