A chaplain in Iraq

Reverend Father Marcus Hodges, an RAF chaplain now stationed in Cyprus, gives his take on the import

The all-pervasive fog of desert dust notwithstanding, there is a clear and powerful chaplaincy vision out here in the Iraqi desert. Of course, a vision of ministry, whether on a home unit or away, must in some sense be the same for all who labour in the rich harvest of the Church’s ministry; yet here in Basrah, it is, perhaps, in some senses simply more undiluted, more vital and more immediate.

Praying and preaching the Word, administering the sacraments and explaining the faith – these are the ‘bread and butter’ of any Christian ministry to be sure. Listening (I mean really hearing what people have to say) and answering questions where possible, pointing out useful directions, and offering guidance, support, comfort and assurance are also tools of the trade. This type of ministry is simple, plentiful and fairly well-known. Yet a different but no less ancient vision of ministry exists alongside as well.

Chaplains are iconic. Catholics have traditionally understood this truth in terms of their priests being ‘in persona Christi’. This is neither an arrogant nor vain boast, but rather provides a genuine source of humility and even dread for those who answer the call. Of course, the chaplain is fallible and weak, and sees himself as one with the people he serves, in uniform, membership, loyalty and duty. Like them, he is at constant risk of injury or death.

Nevertheless, he is also, in a very profound sense, set apart from those he serves. For the religious and the the skeptical alike, the chaplain represents a calling and mission; he makes visible his membership of a kingdom of values and hope which he hopes will transcend the dirt and confusion that characterise armed conflict. The chaplain is, in this case, a very real presence of the Good Shepherd Himself amongst His flock.

Of course, I don't mean to say that all people welcome the chaplain. For every person who welcomes his presence, there will almost always be one who rejects it. Although the chaplain's primary function is to offer comfort and assurance, he also faces challenges that will always be a part of the fulfillment of his ministry.

‘Comfort my people’ says the prophet Isaiah. When the rockets rain in, when the siren sounds, when strong men and women fall to their faces in the mud, why do they often do they glance toward the chaplain? Not for marching orders or military direction, but rather for evidence, however small and fleeting, that at least one person remains steadfast in the faith that ‘all manner of thing shall be well’. Isn’t this the meaning behind the well-meant jibe so often voiced: ‘you’re ok, Padre! – we know who’s looking after you’? The chaplain represents to some that gossamer hope that they too might come to have a share in his godly favour.

‘I come to bring a sword’ says the Lord. Of course, the chaplain never wishes to sew conflict or bring trouble. Yet inevitably he acts ‘in persona Christi’ not just as priest but as prophet too. The untold pressures of operational duty weigh heavily on the shoulders of all, but none more so than those in command. They make bitter decisions in which notions of right and wrong, or justice and peace may almost vanish. It is the chaplain’s reluctant duty at these times to stand firm, and he does so not by direct challenge to authority, but rather more powerfully by virtue of his silent presence.

None of my thoughts here is in any way new or original, but the ministry of a military chaplain is hardly new either. Ever since priests began to march with armies hundreds of years ago, the work of the chaplain, an undoubted opus Dei, has been both valued and praised. My final reflection, made through the swirl of this choking dust of war and strife, is that if only the chaplain can stand firmly in the Person of Christ amongst his people, then surely the risen Christ will stand next to him.

Getty
Show Hide image

What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage