Catholic leaders in the Central African Republic praised the courage of missionary priests and nuns who remained in the country during the current conflict, despite offers of evacuation.
"That most have remained here is the greatest act of witness our church has given," said Bishop Nestor-Desire Nongo Aziagbia of Bossangoa, Central African Republic.
"Even when life is insecure, people still look to their priests and religious as a sign of hope and to Catholic missions as places of refuge. This makes their continued presence very important," he told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview Thursday.
The bishop said most missionaries and foreign religious order members had defied dangers and remained in the Central African Republic, where French and African forces are attempting to restore order after more than a year of fighting.
Nongo said some members of his diocese's religious congregations had been forced to leave.
"One group of nuns called me in the morning to say their house had been under fire all night," the bishop told CNS. "But even then, though their lives were at stake and they clearly couldn't stay, one of the nuns still decided to remain."
The bishops' conference president, Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga of Bangui, told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that missionaries provided "reference points and ramparts" for local people as a "manifestation of the power of love."
"In many places, the missionaries have stayed and haven't wanted to leave, although we placed no obligation on them and left them free to decide," Nzapalainga said.
"They should be given support to remain as a light in the night. In every crisis, when the missionaries stay, their presence has a mitigating effect," he added.
Catholics make up around a third of the 4.4 million inhabitants of the Central African Republic, one of the world's poorest countries; Muslims are about 15 percent.
Missionary clergy and religious order members, many from the U.S., France, Italy, Spain and Poland, as well as from other African countries, have helped circulate information and offered shelter to some of the estimated 1 million people displaced by the violence, which has continued despite the December deployment of 1,600 French paratroopers under a U.N. mandate.
Capuchin Fr. Serge Mbremandji told the Italian publication La Stampa that, in January, members of the Islamist-dominated Seleka movement had gone "on a shooting spree" at a Catholic mission in Bocaranga, forcing its priests, nuns and catechists to flee.
Polish Capuchin Fr. Benedykt Paczek told his country's Radio Plus on Feb. 4 that he had taken refuge at a school after his mission at Ngaoundaye was raided and burned by rebels. He added that the 38 Polish missionaries working at nine separate locations had rejected offers of evacuation by their country's foreign ministry.
In his ACN interview, Nzapalainga said he believed the continuing violence had made people "more fervent" in religious beliefs and practices.
He added that he also had rejected offers of asylum during a January visit to France, concluding "the devil scatters, but God brings together."