Bamako — The entire Catholic culture will be in danger if the conflict is in Mali drags on because; although churches are still intact people are becoming afraid to go and worship.
This is according to Catholic Bishop Augustin Traore of Segou, whose diocese lies in the path of Islamic insurgents. "People are hiding in their homes, unable to venture out. Until the havoc caused by the French bombing ends and the hostilities cease, no one will be in a position to know what has happened," he said after noting that the country's churches could face destruction if conflict continues.
Bishop Traore was speaking to Catholic News Service as French combat troops prepared to engage government rebels at Diabaly, 90 miles north of Segou.
Meanwhile, Helen Blakesley, regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services, said more than 200,000 Malians had migrated to the south since a March 2012 military coup, while a similar number had fled to Niger, Burkina Faso, Morocco and Algeria.
Blakesley said a tradesman from the rebel-held town of Tombouctou, or Timbuktu, a world heritage site, was renting rooms with 40 members of his extended family in Mali's capital, Bamako, helped by CRS cash donations. She said the man told her more family members were arriving weekly.
Bishop Traore said relations between Christians and Mali's Muslim majority remained "good at local level" and had not been damaged by the Islamist insurgency, adding that people of all faiths were "vigorously committed" to maintaining the country's secular way of life.
According to Traore, people are deeply anxious and longing for this turbulence to end, and needs are great everywhere and they include securing places of worship"
Ethnic Tuareg rebels seeking to establish a separate state overran most of northern Mali during 2012, operating alongside the Islamist group Ansar Eddine, which is believed to be linked to al-Qaida.
According to a CRS country representative in Mali, the U.S. bishops' international development agency was providing help to people fleeing from rebel-occupied parts of Mopti Diocese.
He added that many northern inhabitants had fled to Segou but were now moving south to Bamako as the insurgent threat to Mopti and Segou increased.
The Catholic Church has six dioceses and makes up less than 2 percent of Mali's predominantly Muslim population of 15.8 million.
In a July statement, the country's Catholic bishops' conference and the Association of Protestant Churches deplored the robbing of Christian families and occupation of churches in Tombouctou, Gao and other northern towns.
In mid-January, Archbishop Jean Zerbo of Bamako asked that a humanitarian corridor be opened in his country, and he appealed to international aid agencies and foreign governments to help those displace.