For the first time in the country's history, a church, recently rebuilt with the support of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), was ransacked. The perpetrators of the attack are still unknown, but the rise of Islamic militancy in the region is worrying.
The Catholic population of Guinea-Bissau, a small country located south of Senegal, is worried because of the attack and vandalism of a Catholic church, St. Isabelle of Gabú, on July 2, 2022. The images of the damage caused by the attack were widely publicized on social media.
The administrator of the diocese of Bafatá, Don Luccio Brentegani, denounced the vandalism stating that “nothing and no one can separate the Christian community” from the rest of the country. Christians are a minority of just under 13% in this former Portuguese colony in West Africa.
Muslims form the majority, with about 46% of the population, while followers of traditional African religions make up about 40%. Despite this, it is the first incident of church vandalism in living memory in the country.
Destruction of Images and Crucifixes
The church, built in 1946, was reopened exactly a year ago, in July 2021, after ACN helped with various repairs to the dilapidated building. The roof was in danger of collapsing.
The vandals destroyed statues: those of Our Lady and St. Elisabeth, patroness of the parish. A crucifix and an image of Our Lady of Gebra were also smashed. Fr. Luccio, an Italian priest, explains that this last image is “popular among all Catholics in the eastern part of the country, and constitutes a very ancient symbol of the Catholic presence in Guinea-Bissau.”
Gabú regional secretary Mussá Câmara said authorities are committed to finding and bringing to justice whoever is responsible for the vandalism. For his part, questioned by the press, the President of Guinea-Bissau, Umaro Sissoco Embaló, played down the affair.
“How many times have mosques been robbed? If we rob a church, we just have to let the police do their job. If a church has been vandalized, is it that serious? How often are clocks, electric fans or air conditioners stolen from mosques? Even in the Vatican, or in Mecca, there are cases of theft, is it so serious?”
Growing Tension in the Region
Although it is still unclear to whom this act is attributed, there are strong concerns that it is linked to the rise of extremism in Guinea-Bissau, against which the latest report on religious freedom from the ACN had already issued a warning.
This report indicates that “tension is rising” in this African country, also stressing that “some jihadist terrorist groups have become involved in illegal activities,” such as drug trafficking.
The growing presence of Islamic terrorist groups in this part of Africa had already led the Regional Episcopal Conference of Francophone West Africa – which includes the bishops of Guinea-Bissau – to publish a common pastoral message in May 2019.
In the message, they draw attention to the “worrying wave of violence” facing Christians in the region. Although it is highly likely that terrorist groups are active in the region, so far this has not translated into acts of violence or intimidation against the non-Muslim population, “but it remains to be seen whether the growing radical Islamist presence will change that,” the ACN report states.