A Bishop for Child Soldiers and Refugees

Author: ZENIT


A Bishop for Child Soldiers and Refugees

Part 1Interview With Bishop Giuseppe Franzelli of Lira, Uganda

LIRA, Uganda, 26 JULY 2010 (ZENIT)
When Comboni Missionary Giuseppe Franzelli, a native of Roccafranca, Italy, was told that Pope John Paul II wanted him to be a bishop in Uganda, his immediate response was, "No. Get somebody else."

If being a bishop is always a cross, he reflected, the situation in Lira, Uganda, would be even more difficult as the nation strained through a conflict with the Lord's Resistance Army and the unimaginable atrocities wreaked on the people, even the children.

But Bishop Franzelli's appointment came as John Paul II was dying. It was published in L'Osservatore Romano on April 1, 2005 — he sees it as a sort of April Fool's Day joke from the Pope. The next day in the evening, the Holy Father would die.

Looking at the dying Pope, "carrying the cross for the whole universal Church," the missionary reflected, "how could I say no?"

"The reality proved that it was not just a cross but it continues to be a cross," the 68-year-old bishop explains in this interview given to the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.

Part 2 of this interview will be published on Tuesday.

Q: Was it always a desire of yours to be a missionary?

Bishop Franzelli: Well, I was prompted to that by a young missionary who was going around the parishes and showing us slides and this kind of thing.

Q: And it awoke this sense of adventure in your mind. Did you have a sense of calling at that age?

Bishop Franzelli: As far as a child does yes, and it developed — of course with doubts as I went along — but then it was quite strong. That is why I’m here.

Q: Did you have any ideas and pre-conceptions about Africa?

Bishop Franzelli: Only the usual, if you want, the romantic ideas at that time: lions for me as a child, and then the Africans, the slavery thing that I’ve read about and all the rest, and definitely poverty and people in need of knowing the Gospel.

Q: You were made a bishop by Pope John Paul II and in fact, your appointment was made before the day he died. What is the significance of this appointment?

Bishop Franzelli: It was a great surprise and a big shock to me and, to be honest, I didn’t want it, absolutely not, and I tried even to resist it. I was appointed by him and it was published in L’Osservatore Romano. It was done on the first of April, that’s April Fool's Day, which is why I consider that as a kind of a joke that the Pope did to me and 17 others who were made bishop. The nomination was published in the afternoon on April 1, 2005, in L’Osservatore Romano, which was dated on the following day, April 2, which is the day — that evening — in which the Pope died.

When I was called to Sacra Congregatio Propaganda Fide (the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) for discussing things, it was Cardinal [Crescenzio] Sepe who broke the news to me. I said, “No, get somebody else” and so on, eventually the Pope came into it in the sense that, first of all, the cardinal told me that he [the Pope] has agreed and wants this. I was looking at the Pope: “He is very sick. He is carrying the cross for the whole universal Church, so you better accept and help carry the cross for the Church. How could I say no? Well, if that is the case, and a witness to the Pope and utter love then I will accept.” So that is what it meant to me.

Q: It was a heavy cross for you to accept this appointment. What were the changes and how is it a cross for you?

Bishop Franzelli: Being a bishop is a cross; well, being associated closely with the work of Jesus entails and must entail carrying a cross with him. The little I knew about the situation down there was that it was a particular situation, an emergency situation. As a matter of fact, I’m the third bishop of that diocese and the first white bishop of the diocese. There were problems that required someone from the outside to come in and help with the situation.

I’d never been to Lira myself. I’d only passed through in my first 17 years in Uganda because I went there in 1971 up to 1987, but I worked mostly in the Gulu Archdiocese. I knew nobody [and] in Lira nobody knew me. So it was a big challenge. The reality proved that it was not just a cross but it continues to be a cross, but of course that is part of the job; part of the package.

Q: You arrived, as you say, in an emergency situation that was in 2005, the height of the civil war with the LRA, the Lord's Resistance Army. Now there is a tentative peace agreement in place but at that time the LRA was, if you will, the devil in action. It was a cruel and bitter war. Can you tell us a bit of a background about this civil war and the emergence of the LRA?

Bishop Franzelli: It didn’t start out of nothing. When I was there during my first years in Africa, there was already, when the present President Museveni, took over the power from General Okello, there was already this movement by the prophetess Alice Lakwena, who purported to be inspired by the Holy Spirit to resist and fight the government.

I experienced that because the mission where I was located became a battlefield literally; people were fighting each other and people being killed in front of me. So that was the beginning. When Alice Lakwena was defeated and said to have fled to Kenya, Joseph Kony took over the leadership with the idea to start a new society in Uganda based on the Ten Commandments, but they forgot and ignored very quickly the fifth commandment – Thou shalt not kill — among others. This was a kind of fundamentalist belief mixed with traditional beliefs and anointing people with this kind of oil and making people believe that this will protect them from the bullets.

Q: Exactly … they were smeared with some kind of oil, with the saying that bullets would bounce off them.

Bishop Franzelli: Yes, but then it became obvious to them that fighting a well-organized army became very difficult so they turned against their own people. They would come to the villages and coerced the villagers to join them. The villagers, of course, would not join and even their own family — brothers, and sons, refused and this ignited the reign of terror. Anyone, even close family members who refused to join the rebels were maimed, body parts amputated; atrocities unimaginable even among the traditional African values.

There was a reign of terror forcing the villagers to depart from the villages and there was this phenomenon of “child soldiers”; village children being abducted and forced to fight. About 15,000 to 20,000 children abducted, more or less, because this has been happening for 20 years now. The children are abducted, taken to the bush and trained to kill. Those who tried to escape were killed and their own friends or brothers were forced to kill the escapees.

Q: Was this for you the devil in action?

Bishop Franzelli: We do believe in the Holy Spirit but he is not the only spirit that exists in the world, so the evil one is also there. He [the evil one] uses people of course, and from a human point of view this was beyond understanding, and incomprehensible, that one cannot accept it.

Q: You cannot imagine it. Did it test your faith to see this inhumanity?

Bishop Franzelli: When you see people being killed or tortured, I think that even Jesus when he was crucified said: “Father, why have you abandoned … forsaken me?” Everybody’s faith will certainly be tested when one witnesses people suffering a lot. There is a place near Lira, Barlonyo, where the rebels came — wearing government-issue military fatigues — and the villagers were caught by the guard. The rebels killed over 300 of the villagers — civilians, women and children. So when you see this … you wonder why?

Q: Were you ever threatened or ever in danger?

Bishop Franzelli: I myself was never in danger because I came later on. I was, however in the first war, shot at and so on. Our mission, as I said, was the battlefield. For this latest event, I personally was not here, but I have been in touch with people who have been and are mourning their dead. And when you see so many orphans, people who have lost everything, and when you see, for instance, because of this terror, people who have left their homes and are staying in internal displaced people camps, which I call concentration camps, where 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 to even 30,000 people are confined in a small space; promiscuity is rampant and the danger of AIDS is apparent; the army that is supposed to provide the security are themselves the abusers; the refugees have nothing to do and the violence to which they are subjected ... and waiting for the NGOs to provide aid, certainly makes one think and ponder.

I remember, one day, taking somebody from Germany to one of these camps. It was only a few-minute visit and Easter was upon us, and at the end of this tour this man says: “Bishop, in a few days it is Easter, what are you going to tell the people? What Easter is this? Where is God?”

And I answered: “Yes … look, look, God is here crucified with them. Close to the camp we have built a chapel where the Eucharist is kept. So he is here with them. They sleep in the chapel and he is with them.” The resurrection is coming, but then of course this tests your own faith and I was really edified by my own people.

Q: In what sense?

Bishop Franzelli: Well, for their endurance, for their faith … I remember, as I was leaving that camp, there came a young lady with three children — triplets — and her husband was killed before she gave birth; nobody else was there and she told me when I tried to encourage her: “Bishop, don’t worry. God is there."Part 2Interview With Bishop Giuseppe Franzelli of Lira, Uganda LIRA, Uganda, 27 JULY 2010 (ZENIT)
Bishop Giuseppe Franzelli of Lira, a Comboni Missionary, admits that it is hard to know where to start when working with children who have been forcibly converted to soldiers and assassins.

But the Italian native, only the third bishop of Lira, begins with the basics. He takes the Bible, translated into the local language, and works to sow the Word of God.

And he asks the faithful of the universal Church to put the people of Uganda in their hearts, praying at least an Our Father for peace in their land.

The 68-year-old bishop explains in this interview, given to the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, that the priority is helping people restart their lives, and rebuilding people "from within."

Part 1 of this interview was published Monday.

Q: Today, there is officially a peace agreement in place in Uganda?

Bishop Franzelli: The peace talks started in 2006 and that was the beginning of the change because part of the agreement as things were proceeding was that the rebels would stop attacking and the army would stop running after them. So little by little the rebels retreated to a forest area close to the Congo border. The attacks and abductions of children diminished and actually stopped, giving us a bit of a breather and people were able to get out.

Q: Now people are coming back to their homes.

Bishop Franzelli: Yes, but the problem is that all the points in the peace agreement were agreed upon between the representatives of the rebels and the government at a neutral area in Juba in southern Sudan, with the mediation provided by the civil society, the Church, particularly Archbishop [John Baptist] Odama of Gulu who played a very important role, and the other Protestant bishops as well the representatives from the highest level of the Muslims; there was the last thing that was missing and that was the signature on the document between President Museveni and the rebel leader Joseph Kony.

This was the day after Easter 2008. We went to Juba, waited a few days and we received the message that Joseph Kony was not coming to sign because there was a warrant for his arrest issued by the ICC — the International Criminal Court, from the Hague.

Q: So he is in the bush somewhere.

Bishop Franzelli: He is in the bush so we agreed that if he is not coming then we would go to him for him to sign the document. We went back to Uganda with all the parties but he did not appear. After that we gave more effort and agreed after a few more times on a date, but he never appeared.

Q: So today it is still tenuous.

Bishop Franzelli: No… no … after that there have been some new developments: While the chiefs from the different tribes and the religious leaders were insisting that if there is more time and patience maybe a peace agreement would be achieved, all of a sudden on Dec. 14, 2008, a combined military effort between the Ugandan army, Congo and southern Sudan occurred. They bombed the rebel stronghold and since then the rebels were weakened and were dispersed. The rebels' fourth in command was taken prisoner. Since then, what was supposed to be a military strike — [Operation] Lightning and Thunder — is still going on and the sure result is that about 900 plus civilians were killed, in Congo this time, because that is where the rebels retreated and 130,000 people have been displaced in southern Sudan.

Q: But the root problem is still there?

Bishop Franzelli: The root problem is still there, and of course, we are, up to now, living in peace because the rebels are so far away from us that they cannot attack us any longer, but the problem is, even if the military operation is successful, will the government and those in authority remember that that does not end the problem and they have to face the problem, the causes which led to this bloodshed? The problem they have to address is the underdevelopment, and lack of opportunities in the northern part of Uganda and this is going to be difficult.

Q: Nevertheless the Church is in a situation now because you are confronting the remainders and the result of this bloody upheaval. You have 20,000 children, for example, that have been psychologically damaged, traumatized and you have displaced people. What can the Church now do in this period of restoration and rebuilding to help the people, particularly in your diocese?

Bishop Franzelli: The children who were abducted and conscripted to fight are no longer children and a few of them have died and were killed during the military operation. Some came back but the big concern is the issue of the displaced people. There has been a change since the beginning of the peace talks and after. People have started coming back to their homes particularly in my Diocese in Lira. In the Gulu Archdiocese among the Acholi people, half of them are still in the camps.

With us most have gone back home but there are no homes to go back to because, after all these years, these homes were damaged and have not been repaired.

So we are faced with the challenges of reconstruction and accompanying our people who are really alone and without any means to start all over again to rebuild churches, schools, health centers and so on and the cultivation of the land; this is a part of our mission but most of all even — although this is a big challenge because of financial and personnel constrains — probably the most difficult challenge is rebuilding people from within and also giving hope. While in the camps, there is a high rate of suicide not only among the old people, the elders who were desperate that they could no longer go back to their ancestral home, but also among the young people…

Q: What is the future?

Bishop Franzelli: So now people are going back and the young people who are back to school have for a very long time been internalizing this anger and have become very violent. Most of these young people were involved in violent acts themselves and with so much anger, they manifest these in their actions, for example, if there is a problem in the schools, the young people immediately respond with violence as opposed to using the traditional African method, which involves a peaceful resolution by coming and sitting together to discuss the issue. It will take time and years to heal this psychological and physical trauma.

Q: How do you heal these young children who have been traumatized? Where do you start? These children who at the age of 10 or 12 were given a gun and were obliged to kill relatives and so on?

Bishop Franzelli: This is my question as well. I’ve been talking to two of these “child soldiers” who came back. They were three brothers who were abducted. One of the brothers tried to escape but was caught. The two brothers were forced to kill him. So, where do you start? This would require a massive counseling; everybody is traumatized. We do not have the means and personnel for that.

So what we are trying to do is: We have translated the Bible in the local language. I go around to the different parishes, bringing with me the Bible and it’s like “sowing” once again the Word of God and the peace of reconciliation and I believe that this will bring results.

Q: After so much violence are the people open to the Word of God. Are they open to the Gospel? Are they open to the Holy Spirit as that which will heal them and their relationships?

Bishop Franzelli: They are, of course with resistance; there is nothing automatic. But I’ve seen changes and I see it happening. The Spirit is at work but of course it needs time. It needs also clergy, and religious people who are faithful to their vocation and are witnesses of their faith. It needs more unity and communion within the Churches, between the different dioceses within Uganda, north and south. The challenge is there and as that mother of the three boys told me: “God is there."

Q: What do you need from the universal Church?

Bishop Franzelli: I always ask people to pray, and faced with these problems, I see the frequent reaction from people: The problem is overwhelming. People say: “What can we do?" People feel so small and that they cannot do anything. They feel that they could just provide financial support and that isn’t it. No, no, no. You can do a lot. For instance, you let this reality touch you, if you welcome this and let it become part of your concern, you let this people, your brothers and sisters of northern Uganda be part of your prayer, just as you pray for your grandmother or the economic crisis that is affecting us today and so on. If you pray, I do believe in the communion of saints, and it does work.

The Uganda Episcopal Conference asked all Christians last year, at the end of every Mass and the Eucharist, to pray one “Our Father” asking God for the gift of peace. I do hear this in Europe and in any community and I will request it in any community that I will visit; I will ask them to do the same, at least to join us in this important effort to pray one “Our Father” to ask God for his kingdom to come, which is a kingdom of peace and brotherhood and that peace will happen there.

* * *

This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps," a weekly TV & radio show produced by Catholic Radio & Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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