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Bishop in Mali says people are deeply anxious

OXFORD (Agencies): “People are hiding in their homes, unable to venture out,” Bishop Augustin Traore, from Segou, Mali, told Catholic News Service by telephone on January 16, just as French combat troops prepared to Islamic insurgents at Diabaly just 144 kilomtres to the north. 

“Although our churches are still intact, people are becoming afraid to enter them. Our entire Catholic culture will clearly be in danger if this conflict drags on,” he said.

On January 18, CNN quoted Ibrahim Toure, a civilian who left Diabaly on January 17 as saying, “People are desperate to get out.” It also reported that Diabaly’s residents were told by rebels that they could stay, though according to Cheick Oumar, a construction worker, some were prevented from leaving.

Oumar told CNN that “people are left without protection. The rebels say they will not hurt anyone, but people are afraid they will turn Diabaly into a new Islamist stronghold and impose Sharia law.”

Meanwhile, Helen Blakesley, regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), told Catholic News Service that more than 200,000 Malians had migrated to the south since a March 2012 military coup, while a similar number had fled to Niger, Burkina Faso, Morocco and Algeria. 

Blakesley said a tradesperson from the rebel-held town of Tombouctou, (Timbuktu), a world heritage site, was renting rooms with 40 members of his extended family in Mali’s capital, Bamako, helped by CRS cash donations. She said the man told her more family members were arriving weekly. 

She recounted the case of two women, Fanta Poudiougou and Mariam Dembele, who had described fled their hometown of Gao, 321 kilometres southeast of Tombouctou, without their husbands to avoid the threatened rape of their young daughters. 

Bishop Traore said relations between Christians and Mali’s Muslim majority remained “good at (the) local level” and had not been damaged by the insurgency, adding that people of all faiths were “vigorously committed” to maintaining the country’s secular character. 

“People are deeply anxious and longing for this turbulence to end,” Bishop Traore said. 

“The needs are great everywhere and they include securing places of worship,” he said. 

Sean Gallagher, the CRS country representative in Mali, said the agency was providing help to people fleeing from rebel-occupied parts of Mopti Diocese. He added that many northern inhabitants had fled to Segou but were now moving south to Bamako as the insurgent threat to Mopti and Segou increased. 

“Conditions aren’t so bad in the rural towns, where the autumn harvests were good and there’s food available,” Gallagher said on January 16. “Since most of the displaced are women and children, it is much harder in urban areas like Bamako, where the priority is to ensure they have enough to eat and can maintain their dignity.” 

The Catholic Church has six dioceses and makes up less than two per cent of Mali’s predominantly Muslim population of 15.8 million. 

In mid-January, Archbishop Jean Zerbo, from Bamako, asked that a humanitarian corridor be opened in his country and he appealed to international aid agencies and foreign governments to help the displaced.

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