A Catholic priest who sheltered 1,500 Muslims from dangerous militia groups is one of four finalists for a new $1 million peace prize.
Fr Bernard Kinvi, a Camillan priest from the Central African Republic, opened his church for Muslims fleeing from heinous sectarian violence in the area, in 2013.
The violence began following an uprising against President Francois Bozizé in December 2012 that resulted in him being driven out in March 2013 by the majority-Muslim rebel militia faction, Séléka.
Although the Séléka leader, Michel Djotodia announced the group’s disbanding in September 2013, former members continued to target areas of the country, resulting in the uprising of an opposing Christian faction, the anti-Balaka. The group carried out attacks on Muslims, massacring them, destroying their homes and mosques and forcibly converting some of them to Christianity.
Muslim and Christian leaders in the Central African Republic have condemned both of the groups, who only have weak connections with their religious affiliations.
Fr Kinvi recalled one of the most horrific attacks when over 80 Muslims were killed during an attack by the anti-Balaka on the northwest town of Bossemptele in 2014. Fr Kinvi spent days searching for survivors and tending to them in his church.
“It wasn’t a decision; it was just something that happened,” he told The Guardian. “As a priest, I cannot support the killing of a man. We’re all human: religion doesn’t come into it. If anti-Balaka come in wounded, I treat them. I don’t care who you are or what you do with your life or what your religion is, you are a human being and I will treat you.”
Following the attack, Fr Kinvi was intimidated by the anti-Balaka for the support he offered to the large number of Muslim victims, which, at one point reached around 1,500. Despite this, he was able to organise their safe transfer across the border into Cameroon. African peacekeepers evacuated the majority of the Muslims who remained in March 2014, however, children, those who were too frail and the disabled, stayed behind at the church.
“When I became a priest, I undertook to serve the sick even if it meant putting my life in danger,” Fr Kinvi said. “I said that but I didn’t really know what it meant. But when the war came, I understood what it means to risk your life. Being a priest is about more than giving blessings; it’s about standing with those who have lost everything.”
Fr Kinvi admitted in an interview with the National Catholic Register that the conflict had “truly tested” his faith. However, he also explained that it had caused it to grow.
“I exceptionally experience that our God is always with us in all our trials. I performed some exceptional acts that made me believe that it is the Lord who works in me. This shows God is in control,” he said.
“I discovered that only love can destroy the walls of hatred. I thank God that I showed love to all who came to our hospital; I met rebels who once threatened me with death, and I was able to offer my hand to greet them, thanks to this love. Only love can overcome the hatred of the world. And this love we can live through prayer. And each time one asks me where I find the strength to do all that I do, I simply say, ‘Jesus Christ.’ The Eucharist, adoration, daily prayer of the Rosary: These are my weapons of victory.
“My ministry bears fruit every time I heal more life through faith, prayer and love.”
Fr Kinvi, who previously received the Human Rights Watch ‘Alison Des Forges’ award for his work is now one of four finalists nominated for the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity.
The award, which was founded by George Clooney and will be presented by him in April, is given to ‘individuals who put themselves at risk to enable others to survive’.
Of the four finalists, three are Catholics. The other nominees are: Tom Catena, a Catholic surgeon who has treated thousands of people in Sudan’s Nuba region; Marguerite Barankitse, a Catholic who cared for orphans and refugees during Burundi’s civil war; and Syeda Ghulam Fatima, who has fought against slavery in Pakistan.
The Aurora Prize committee explained that Fr Kinvi had been selected as he ‘provided medical assistance and refuge to both sides of an armed conflict, establishing his mission as a safe haven for any and all who were injured, despite the violence that raged outside’.