Rebels destroy Caritas office, church in Mali


VATICAN CITY — Rebels fighting to establish a separate state in northern Mali destroyed a Caritas office and a local church in Gao, one of the cities they captured in late March and early April, according to Caritas Internationalis.

“Caritas staff fled Gao on Saturday. We learned from our guard today that the center and the church compound have been destroyed,” the priest who directs Caritas Gao told the organization’s Vatican-based central office April 2.

“We have received calls from the small Catholic community left in Gao. They are now in hiding, fearing for their lives,” said the priest, identified only as Father Jean-Jacques. He said there are about 200 Catholics living in Gao, a city with a population of more than 85,000 people. The vast majority are Muslims.

Caritas Internationalis said rebels of the Taureg ethnic group, fighting for an independent state, had seized three regional capitals in as many days. The main rebel group is the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). They are operating alongside the Islamist group Ansar Edine, who, Caritas said, have links to al-Qaida’s North African branch.

Despite the conflict in the north and a military coup March 22 that ousted democratically-elected President Amadou Toumani Toure, Caritas Mali said it continues to provide desperately needed food aid to the rest of the country.

The capital of Mali is calm, said Theodore Togo, secretary-general of Caritas Mali. “We are monitoring the situation in the north.”

“Apart from Gao and Mopti, which have temporally suspended operations, our program continues assisting people affected by the food crisis,” he said. “If the rebels limit their activities to the North, then the majority of our aid programs will be able to continue as planned.”

Caritas Mali is distributing corn, millet, rice and sorghum, as well as seeds to more than 100,000 people affected by a growing food crisis, Caritas Internationalis said.

In addition, the organization said, Caritas members in Niger are providing food aid to refugees who have fled the conflict in northern Mali.