Attack on the Bishop-elect in South Sudan

May 12, 2021
Rumbek Cathedral of the Holy Family

The bishop-elect of the diocese of Rumbek, South Sudan, was the victim of an attack, less than a month before his episcopal consecration. The attack on the missionary highlights the tribal struggles that have plagued the country since its independence in 2011, against which the Catholic Church finds itself on the front lines.

“During the night we learned of the attack on Fr. Cristian Carlassare. The Comboni missionary was immediately taken to Juba hospital. News of the attack on the elected bishop of Rumbek reached the pontifical agency Fides on April 26, 2021, once again highlighting the climate of violence and tribalism affecting the region.

“Fr. Cristian was beaten, as well as the sister who was with him, then he was shot in the legs four times. According to initial news, the attack was apparently planned to frighten him so that he would not be consecrated bishop,” said a local source. The missionary should be transferred to Nairobi, Kenya, for a period of care and convalescence.

Since the death of Bishop Cesare Mazzolari in 2011, the episcopal see of Rumbek (center of the country) has been vacant. It took ten years for Rome to name a successor.

Fr. Christian Carlassare, an Italian missionary present in the country for sixteen years and who carried out his ministry in the State of Upper Nile, arrived in Rumbek on April 16; the date of his episcopal ordination was set for Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2021.

Although the identity and motives of the attackers are unknown at this time, the information site of the Comboni missionaries, reporting testimonies from local sources, tells a tale of tribal struggles: the majority Dinka ethnic group has long demanded that one of theirs be appointed Bishop of Rumbek.

South Sudan, inhabited by 12.5 million people, is majority Christian (60% of the population) of which there are 3 million faithful Catholics and 2.5 million Protestants belonging to the Episcopal Church of Sudan.

The general political context

From 2005, the region, which was not yet independent, fell into the hands of a clique of Dinka politicians, the majority ethnic group, led by current President Salva Kiir: all the ingredients for a tribal war of great magnitude were then united.

Two years after gaining independence in 2011, the country descended into a deadly civil war, when Salva Kiir accused Riek Machar - his vice-president and a member of the Nuer ethnic group - of plotting a coup.

In February 2020, a peace agreement put an end, temporarily or definitively, as the future will tell, to the atrocities: but the wounds still remain open in a worn-out country.