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Central African Republic, The Catholic Church in

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN

The Central African Republic is a landlocked country positioned almost precisely at the center of the African continent. Located on a plateau about 2,500 feet in elevation, it is bordered on the north by Chad, on the east by Sudan, on the south by Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), and on the west by Cameroon. The dense forests covering the country's southern region thin out to a savanna in the north that is frequently buffeted by hot, dry harmattan winds. Considered one of the last refuges for Africa's wildlife, the Central African Republic is threatened by encroaching desert conditions, deforestation in the south, and chronic water shortages. While natural resources include diamonds, uranium, gold, and oil reserves, the country has suffered through government mismanagement and social and economic adversity. More than two-thirds of Central Africanspredominately members of the Banda, Baya, and Mandjia tribeslive in outlying areas and engage in subsistence agriculture; the average life expectancy of an adult male was 42 years in 2000.

The Central African Republic was politically tied with Chad to form the colony of Ubangi Shari, and was once part of French Equatorial Africa. After gaining independence from France on Aug. 13, 1960, the Central African Republic suffered under a series of military governments before a civilian government rose to power in 1993.

While archaeologists determined the region to have been inhabited by man since the paleolithic period, little is know of these early peoples. Part of the African Gaoga empire during the 16th century and likely the home of pygmy tribes as late as the 18th century, the Central African Republic was used by African slave traders as a convenient place to relocate conquered tribes from neighboring Chad and the Congo, as well as from nearby Somalia and the lakes region. French explorers appeared in the 1880s, establishing the city of Bangui in 1889 and uniting the Central African Republic with Chad to form the colony of Ubangi Shari. The region's first mission, founded with great difficulty by Prosper Augouard at Saint-Paul-des-Rapids near Bangui in 1894, was a precarious one standing alone amid a hostile population given to cannibalism.

Reflecting the area's political ties to Chad, the Vicariate of the French Upper Congo and Ubangi (now Brazzaville) was created from the Vicarate of the French Congo in 1894. The region's first three missions were created the Prefecture of Ubangi Shari in 1909, and would become the Vicarate of Bangui in 1940. The nearby Prefecture of Berbérati would be made a vicariate in 1952. Meanwhile, the French government's institution of forced labor to expand its rubber enterprise causing an exodus of natives from the Ubangi Shari, which was incorporated into French Equatorial Africa in 1910. Although a lack of missionaries hurt the Church's evangelical efforts during World War I, an influx of personnel after the war allowed missions to expand beyond the borderland rivers into the region's interior. In 1938 the first African priest was ordained.

French Capuchins driven from Ethiopia began to labor in Berbérati in 1938, and after World War II they were joined by Italian Capuchins, also driven from Ethiopia. Dutch Holy Ghost Fathers received Bangassou in 1954, and the following year the region's Church hierarchy was formally established. Protestant missions, mainly from the United States, began working in the area in 1920 and gained most converts in Bangassou and Bossangoa.

The country's minor seminaries, located in Sibut and Berbérati, had 114 seminarians in 2000. The region contained 115 parishes and numerous primary and secondary schools. The Church had 138 secular and 145 religious priests, as well as 59 brothers and 370 sisters, to administer to the faithful of the Central African Republic in 2000. Continued political unrest and threats to the republic's democratic government by members of the military were the concern of many in the Church, prompting Bangui's Archbishop Joachim Ndayen to host peace talks beginning in 1996. In 1999 Pope John Paul II spoke to Central African Republic bishops about their "difficult and complex situation," but commended evangelization efforts that had resulted in the creation of two new diocese and the promotion of the Christian family in the region.

[j. le gall/eds.]

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