Media: Thousands evicted from church land in Angola

24 03 2009

MICHELLE FAUL | LUANDA, ANGOLA – Mar 24 2009 08:07
Source: Mail & Guardian

Even as Pope Benedict XVI said on Monday his heart cannot be at peace while people are homeless, critics used his Africa pilgrimage to highlight the plight of thousands violently evicted from land owned by the Catholic church.

Amnesty International appealed to Benedict during his visit to the Southern Africa country to press its government for full compensation for the families who have been forced from church land since 2004.
More than 2 000 families have been evicted since Angola began returning land to the church that had been seized by the former Marxist state, according to Muluka Miti, a researcher for Amnesty International. The London-based human rights group said people were detained and arrested arbitrarily, and subjected to torture in some cases.

Mateus Damiao and his eight family members were evicted from their land in 2007 on the outskirts of southern Luanda in Wenji Maka, where a new Catholic church is planned. In an interview on Monday, he described repeated attacks by police since 1998, sometimes with bulldozers, sometimes forcing people at gunpoint to leave.

“I hope that the pope’s message will be heard by our leaders and by the pope’s priests and bishops so that no more people are left homeless as I was,” Damiao said. “It’s very sad. I have lost a way of life. They destroyed our community, they destroyed our homes. Some people have been made beggars. Some people have been maimed.”

On Monday, the pope urged Angola’s leaders to make “the fundamental aspirations of the most needy people” their main concern.

“Our hearts cannot be at peace as long as there are brothers that suffer the lack of food, work, a house, and other fundamental goods,” the pontiff said in his airport departure speech.

When asked about Amnesty’s appeal, Vatican spokesperson the Reverend Federico Lombardi referred the question to Angolan Bishop Monsignor Jose Manuel Imbamba. The prelate denied anyone had been evicted or houses destroyed.

“We help the poor, we don’t send them away,” Imbamba said on Saturday at a news conference.

It was impossible to get any response, including numbers of those evicted, from the Angolan government. Jacinto Sampaio, a senior official at the government press centre, claimed he did not know the name of the government spokesperson and that it would not be possible to get immediate comment.

“We have to have the questions in writing and it can take one week, one month, or you can never get a response,” he said, in an indication of the difficulties this one-time Marxist government puts in the way of the media.

The government of Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, who has ruled for 30 years through elections marred by fraud and corruption, has had rocky relations with the Catholic church.

Angola’s government banned freedom of religion after 1975, when Portugal hastily gave its colonies independence and civil war broke out, reminding people that the Catholic Church had been an ally of colonisers who sent tens of thousands of Angolans into slavery in Brazil and the United States.

After a rapprochement with the church, dos Santos in 1998 gave back lands seized by the state that had become occupied by ordinary Angolans.

Damiao said not long after police began attacking his community. Human rights groups say the government started evicting people from Catholic church land in 2004, two years after the country’s long civil war ended.

In addition to the church land evictions, human rights groups also accuse the Angolan government of forcing out thousands of others as it has pressed ahead with expensive glass high-rises downtown in Luanda and rebuilt provincial towns bombed-out during the civil war.

Miti said that Amnesty has documented a total of 10 000 families evicted since 2001, including the more than 2 000 families removed from Wenji Maki. Many of those evicted have been resettled in satellite towns far from the city center where they lived, without electricity or running water. It is unclear how many were not given homes.

Authorities “demolished homes and just left people there with nowhere to live. The people rebuilt some shelters but the authorities just came back and demolished them again”, said Luiz Araujo with SOS Habitat, an Angolan non-governmental organisation.

Araujo said he left Luanda about a year ago because he was concerned for his own safety after being arrested several times.

While the Angolan government says it has an urban development plan for Luanda, SOS Habitat has been denied access to the documents, Araujo said in a telephone interview from Brussels. SOS Habitat is providing legal counsel for those kicked out, but courts have not scheduled hearings.

Damiao said he and his family have received nothing in compensation since being forced from the land where they grew manioc, potatoes, and cashew nuts. “No house, no money, no land,” he said.

“I am a Catholic. I cannot blame my church but I am very angry with the ambassadors of Christ, the priest and the bishop who forced us from our homes,” he said. – Sapa-AP

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