For decades, Imam Moussa Bawa worked with Italian nun Sister Maria Concetta to help refugees of all faiths to live in peace. On his death, his successor pledges to continue his work.
When they welcomed newborn babies in this town in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), neither midwife Sister Maria Concetta nor her friend Imam Moussa Bawa cared whether they were Muslim or Christian. In their eyes, these were precious new lives that deserved to be cherished by the entire community.
Now, after the imam’s death in July at age 74, the message of peace and interfaith cooperation that he preached for over three decades in this war-torn country will continue through his successor, Imam Moustapha Mobito.
A refugee from Central African Republic (CAR), Imam Moustapha has pledged to carry on working with Sister Maria, who arrived in DRC from Italy in 1959 and runs the hospital in Zongo with the help of her congregation.
“All refugees from the Central African Republic go there,” says Imam Moustapha, whose two daughters were born at the small hospital near the banks of the Oubangui River, which flows between DRC and CAR.
“Fatima and Assia were born there. That is when I met Sister Maria. She is really welcoming. We were together – all the children, whether they are Muslim or Christian, are born there.”
For over three years, violence in CAR between the mainly Christian anti-Balaka and primarily Muslim ex-Seleka militias has forced nearly half a million people from their homes, with a further half a million displaced inside the country.
As a fragile peace takes hold, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partners have renewed calls for increased support for those displaced who remain in need of assistance and healing.
“When I preach at the mosque, I preach patience and peace.”
Now 84, Sister Maria recalls the decades she spent working alongside Imam Moussa Bawa assisting refugees, almost 10,000 of whom have found shelter in Zongo since conflict broke out in CAR in 2013.
“We communicated a lot,” recalls Sister Maria, who, as a midwife, has helped 33,000 babies into the world since 1984. “Being the Muslim leader, he had to persevere with his message – the message to leave war, to forgive and to seek peace. That’s what challenged people’s mindset.”
Following in the footsteps of his much-loved predecessor, Imam Moustapha continues to go the community hospital to welcome new babies.
Even until the end, Imam Moussa Bawa’s house was always open to those who sought shelter or moral guidance. He preached forgiveness, patience, peace and reconciliation, and trained Imam Moustapha himself.
Imam Moustapha Mobito, 36, fled war in Bangui and found refuge in Zongo, a small town on the banks of the Oubangui River. © UNHCR/Kate Thompson Gorry
Like his predecessor, Imam Moustapha Mobito is determined to preach forgiveness, reconciliation and peace between Central African communities. © UNHCR/Kate Thompson Gorry
Imam Moustapha Mobito, 36, and Sister Maria, 84, discuss their hopes for a peaceful Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the banks of the Oubangui River. © UNHCR/Kate Thompson Gorry
The small town of Zongo, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where almost 10,000 refugees have sought shelter. © UNHCR/Kate Thompson Gorry
“It’s the politicians who introduced the idea of a war between Christians and Muslims in the heads of the Christian and Muslim believers. Before, it was not like this,” the imam insists.
“We work every day on the peaceful cohabitation between refugees and the host communities of the DRC, and every time we are together with them, whether we are Christian or Muslim. There is no discord between the two religions here in the DRC.”
For her part, Sister Maria also looks forward to a positive future. “I find Imam Moustapha very gentle and I think we will continue the same dialogue,” she says. “Imam Moussa Bawa was a great example of faith, as a person, and of collaboration. He was happy when I prayed with him. We gave the good example until the end.”
“May peace be between us. Between Christians and Muslims there are no enemies.”
When Sister Maria and Imam Moustapha met recently on the banks of the Oubangui River and looked out towards Bangui, the capital of conflict-riven CAR, the nun had just one message for her new ally. “I wish you good luck and a good collaboration,” she said. “When you need to talk to me, come to me.”
Even in death, the words of Imam Moussa Bawa will live on in the hearts of his friends and followers.
“When I preach at the mosque, I preach patience and peace,” the faith leader said, just months before he passed away. “May peace be between us. Between Christians and Muslims there are no enemies. We have to stay together.”