Can One Catholic Priest Put an End to 36 Years of War?

Can One Catholic Priest Put an End to 36 Years of War?

Why you should care

Because 36 years is too long for most things — especially war.

Father Angelo Romano is backed by a wall of books, fiddling with a white tassel — a rosary substitute, perhaps? I dare not ask because the 53-year-old Catholic priest, professor and peacemaker seems agitated, reluctant to waste time. Eventually, he settles, unfurling stories about mediating conflicts across Africa on behalf of the Sant’Egidio community. A lay religious organization with 60,000 members in 73 countries, “Sant’Egidio is three Ps,” Romano says, quoting Pope Francis: “prayer, poor [people] and peace.”

When he’s not presiding over Sunday Mass at the Basilica of Saint Bartholomew in Rome, the Memorial Church for the New Christian Martyrs (we chuckle about long Catholic names), or teaching contemporary history at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Vatican City, Romano facilitates peace through dialogue. His current focus? Senegal, where a decades-long conflict between the government and the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) has led to the death and displacement of thousands.

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Father Angelo, far left, helped mediate the release of eight Senegalese prisoners in December 2012, a sign that MFDC rebel leader Salif Sadio was ready to engage for the first time in peace talks with the Senegalese government.

Romano estimates that 30,000 people have been killed since 1982, when — according to a 2010 Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center report — the Casamance secessionist movement turned violent. But the report’s author, Aïssatou Fall, says the ethnically and geographically fragmented locals started agitating for regional independence much earlier, in 1947. “When you face such a long conflict,” Romano explains, “you have to face history and a lot of legacies of the past.” “It’s not easy,” he adds, but Romano and Sant’Egidio have grown skilled at moderating intractable disputes.

The group had its first major success in Mozambique, where, as the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs recounted in a 2013 case study, it brokered the end of a civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990. Secretary General Cesare Zucconi, the man responsible for all of Sant’Egidio’s global projects, says Romano played a largely observational role in those negotiations. But now, Zucconi points out, “He is one of the key persons in our work for peace.”

I never met a person involved in a conflict [who] hopes for his children the same future.

Father Angelo Romano

“Most of the conflicts I’ve dealt with are civil wars,” Romano says. He has negotiated for peace in Burundi, Liberia and South Sudan, and now he’s focused on Central African Republic and Senegal. “My job is to find a way to free people from the trap [of war].” A trap, he adds, that is both political and psychological. In 1992, Father Augustin Diamacoune Senghor — a leading MFDC figure already in talks with Senegal’s then-President Abdou Diouf — asked Sant’Egidio to intervene. But the government’s official position was to reject international involvement. Sant’Egidio tried again, according to Romano, after Abdoulaye Wade was elected in 2000. “He told us no, thank you, I will do it myself.”

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Father Angelo in a rebel camp in Zoukombo during a September 2017 mission.

More than a decade later, during the 2012 presidential campaign in which Wade sought a controversial third term, the president made a public appeal asking Sant’Egidio to intervene. Romano says they immediately accepted the government’s olive branch and reached out to Salif Sadio, leader of the northern rebel faction along the Gambian border. Despite having refused all prior mediation efforts, Sadio publicly agreed to negotiate — only Wade failed in his reelection bid that April. Romano arranged to meet the new president, Macky Sall, within 10 days of the inauguration, but it would take until August before Sall agreed to talk with MFDC.

By December, Romano had helped convince the rebels to release seven Senegalese soldiers and a former firefighter captured in 2011 as a show of goodwill. “The liberation was done,” he says. “No money was paid.” Patrick Mégevand, an International Committee of the Red Cross spokesperson in Dakar, confirmed Romano’s account of the release. “The mediation was carried out by the community of Sant’Egidio,” Mégevand wrote in an email. “According to our mandate, we have worked as a neutral intermediary between the parties.” Unfortunately, despite these and other gradual gains, Romano says this year’s Jan. 6 execution of 13 civilians in Southern Casamance triggered “a wave of tension” throughout the region.

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Father Angelo with Sant’Egidio’s Emanuele Pierantonio and Ibrahim Hassan Frede, a young Central African resident who is helping them work for peace in his country.

MFDC issued a statement denying any involvement in the killings, according to Agenzia Fides, which also reported that Al Hassan Sall, the governor of the region’s capital, declared that the peace process is not in jeopardy. Romano is in regular contact with both sides and says that when the environment settles down, talks will resume to try to resolve this overarching challenge: The rebels want independence, and President Sall is alleged to have said he is willing to accept anything, except independence. It would appear they’ve reached an impasse, but Secretary General Zucconi remains confident in Romano’s peace-making abilities, partially based, he says, on a shrewd sense of humor and a deep knowledge of the region. For his part, Romano is optimistic: “I never met a person involved in a conflict [who] hopes for his children the same future.”

When pressed to pinpoint a foreshadowing moment in his life, Romano describes growing up in Palermo, Sicily, a war-torn Mafia stronghold. His banker father moved his mother and two sisters to Rome when Romano was 10, and soon he was spending time with the Sant’Egidio community, helping the poor and the homeless. Then he mentions his great aunt, a nun who baptized many young Tanzanian boys with his name. Tearing up, he tells me, “When one of them died, she used to write me, ‘You have a guardian angel with your name.’” Years later, with a bachelor’s degree in theology and a master’s in political science, the 30-year-old became Father Romano. In 2000, he earned his Ph.D. in social and religious history from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan — staying connected to Sant’Egidio throughout.

Nobody’s promising miracles, but Romano says the people of Casamance have a “huge” will for peace. “It is this that encourages us.”

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