Men in the middle
Frances Murphy introduces two Jesuit priests who have acted as mediators in the volatile political climates of Colombia and Zimbabwe.
Over the past 5 years, most Jesuit-related headlines in the secular press have had one man in particular as their subject – Jorge Mario Bergoglio SJ, now Pope Francis. However, he is not the only member of the Society of Jesus to have made an impact on the global stage in that time.
Two countries whose modern histories have been characterised by internal conflict have, in recent months, crossed thresholds on their way to stability, and in both cases Jesuit priests have occupied an important seat at the negotiating table. Because of their participation in talks at the highest level, Fr Francisco de Roux SJ and Fr Fidelis Mukonori SJ have become household names in Colombia and Zimbabwe, respectively.
Fr de Roux has been actively working for peace in Colombia for 40 years, and in that time he has witnessed at first hand the loss of life, hope and trust for which the longest-running armed conflict in the Western hemisphere was responsible. Working with a CAFOD partner organisation in the Magdalena Medio region of Colombia, where he and his colleagues were trying to initiate peace talks and run development programmes in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they found themselves mistrusted by all sides: “the paramilitaries, the military, the guerrillas [and] the local authorities. During our time there, paramilitaries assassinated 24 members of our team, and the guerrillas killed three of our companions”, he told Thinking Faith.
Yet Fr de Roux’s commitment to peace never wavered, nor his belief that trust between the many different factions involved in the conflict was the key to delivering that peace. He was sure that honest, face-to-face dialogue, and the acceptance of responsibility on all sides, were necessary in order for that trust to be built. This determination was instrumental during the lengthy talks that led to the peace agreement that was signed 18 months ago between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas. Fr de Roux was one of those who facilitated the presence at the negotiating table of victims of the conflict – from all sides – who were given the opportunity to tell their stories. The impact of their testimony was believed to be crucial to the talks. As Fr de Roux told Austen Ivereigh for Crux: “The victims, after giving witness to the most horrible things, ended by saying, ‘I want to struggle for us to forgive, so we can have peace in this land, and I call on you who are killing, to end this war once and for all.’”
Fr de Roux has always been conscious that signing an agreement was only going to be one step on a long road to peace, but he and his colleagues are determined to keep Colombia on this road after decades of wandering.
In November 2017, after a fortnight of speculation in the world’s media and traumatic uncertainty for the people of Zimbabwe, the news broke that Robert Mugabe was resigning the presidency of Zimbabwe after 30 years. With the global spotlight firmly pointed on the events that unfolded in the days preceding and following the historic announcement, there was one man who seemed to be always on the fringes of the glare: Fr Fidelis Mukonori SJ, the superior of the Jesuit community in Chishawasha.
Fr Mukonori has known Mr Mugabe for over 40 years, and was one of his advisors during the complex negotiation of Zimbabwean independence. Even ten years ago, The Telegraph cited Fr Mukonori as one of the then president’s key supporters, claiming that, despite his awareness of Mugabe’s shortcomings, the Jesuit was ‘resolute in his affirmation of what Mugabe has given the nation.’
However, the role that Fr Mukonori played in the end of Mugabe’s presidency seemed to mark a step up even compared to his previous and lengthy engagement with Zimbabwean politics. His closeness to Mugabe led to him taking on a role as mediator firstly in the leader’s talks with the military generals who moved their forces into Harare, and then with Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice-president whom Mugabe had dismissed and who then succeeded him as president.
“My business is to get people together and to get them talking…. I engage government, I engage parties and I engage individuals — the president included,” Fr Mukonori told Fr Russell Pollitt SJ in an interview for America magazine. He claims to have told Mugabe difficult truths, not least about crimes committed by the exiled leader’s own Patriotic Front in the 1970s. However, many people have found it impossible to accept that a Jesuit priest could be so closely allied to a man whose reputation, both domestically and internationally, is complicated to say the least. This is especially true given that Fr Mukonori been heavily involved in the justice and peace movement in his country.
Fr Pollitt wonders if, particularly in his early dealings with those in whose hands the future of Rhodesia lay, Fr Mukonori was ahead of his time in heeding Pope Benedict XVI’s call to Jesuits to go those places that others find difficult to reach. There will be many who judge this assessment of Fr Mukonori’s work to be too charitable. However, just as Fr de Roux has done in Colombia, Fr Mukonori has opened channels of communication that would otherwise have been likely to remain closed. In doing so, these two Jesuit priests may have altered the course of history.
This article first appeared in Jesuits & Friends issue 99 Spring 2018. Read it online