MOZAMBIQUE - "They remained in their place, close to the persecuted people, until their bloodshed". The story of the Jesuit martyrs of Chapotera

Monday, 20 March 2023 cause of beatification   missionaries killed  

by Stefano Lodigiani

In view of the thirty-first "Day of Missionary Martyrs" on March 24, promoted by the Pontifical Mission Societies, Fides presents some profiles of missionary martyrs for whom the Cause of Canonization is underway. Witness to the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ was given by priests, religious and lay people in different situations, on different continents. "Baptism lets us enter this People of God that transmits the faith. A People of God that journeys and hands down the faith. In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples, called to bring the Gospel to the world" (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, 120).

Tete (Agenzia Fides) - On November 20, 2021, the Shrine of Nossa Senhora da Conceição do Zobuè, in the Diocese of Tete, Mozambique, hosted a historic event for the local Church: the opening session of the Beatification and Canonization Process of two Servants of God, Jesuit Fathers João de Deus Kamtedza, Mozambican, and Sílvio Alves Moreira, Portuguese, known as the "Martyrs of Chapotera". They were kidnapped and killed on October 30, 1985, in the context of the civil war that devastated Mozambique, which had become the scene of atrocities and violence committed by RENAMO guerrillas and by those who supported the Marxist-Leninist FRELIMO regime. "Fathers João de Deus Kamtedza and Sílvio Alves Moreira devoted themselves totally to the good of the people, enjoying the esteem of Christians and non-Christians", emphasises the Bishop of Tete, Monsignor Diamantino Guapo Antunes, of the Consolata Missionaries (IMC).

The years of civil war put the Moçambican people and the Catholic communities to a severe test, as witnessed by the news released at the time by Agenzia Fides. In 1985, in addition to the death of the two Jesuits whose cause for beatification was opened, other painful events took place. On January 3, the Italian Combonian missionary Sister Teresa Dalle Pezze was killed during an attack by Renamo guerrillas on a convoy of escorted vehicles along the road from Nampula to Nacala. During the night between 3 and 4 June, a group of Renamo guerrillas kidnapped 4 Portuguese nuns of the order of St. Joseph of Cluny and 4 aspirants in Lifidzi, Tete province, some of whom managed to escape from their kidnappers. Two Italian Capuchin missionaries were kidnapped in the diocese of Quelimane on July 30 by Renamo militants, who attacked the city of Luabo, taking the two hostages along with other foreigners. They were released on September 10, along with 22 other foreigners. After a period of rest and care in Italy, they wanted to return to their mission.
Sister Luigia Bottasso, of the Consolata Missionaries, together with three Mozambican catechists, were kidnapped on November 6 between the mission of Maúa and that of Cuamba, diocese of Lichinga, while they were on their way to a pastoral meeting.

In this humanly discouraging picture, the testimony of faith of the catechists of Pambargala, diocese of Novo Redondo (now diocese of Sumbe, Angola), reported by Fides on 11 May 1985, stands out. "The Christian communities, sorely tried by the war, were not able to have missionaries visit them for more than two years. But the Christians, catechists and above all young people, gave testimony of courage and perseverance. With great firmness in their faith, they maintained contact, through messages and visits". This was their message: “We look forward to visiting and celebrating the faith with all the Christians of Pambargala. That day will come! In the meantime, we are firm in the faith, united in fraternal charity and courageous in the hope of Peace!”

Chapotera, the place linked to the two Jesuit martyrs, is a village about 6 km from the mission of Lifidzi, in the north of the diocese of Tete. The nationalization of education and health care decided by the Mozambican government on July 24, 1975, a month after independence, led the missionaries to think of an alternative to the type of mission they had dedicated themselves to until then. Evicted from their home, leaving behind the mission infrastructure they had built (schools, laboratories, hospital, etc.), they set up a new residence near the village of Chapotera, where the Jesuits settled in 1978. Father João de Deus Kamtedza arrived in Chapotera on July 22, 1983 and Father Silvio in 1985. Here, on the night of October 30, 1985, after being awakened by a group of armed people, they were forced to leave the house, only to be brutally murdered.

The following morning, October 31, upon hearing the noise of a car and gunfire in the middle of the night, some Christians went to the residence of the priests. Seeing no signs of violence, they concluded that they had been kidnapped by Renamo guerrillas. This was the news that reached Vila Ulóngwe at noon on 31 October. On November 1st, a man from the village of Chapotera who was on his way to his field, passing by a sisal tree, saw the lifeless bodies of the two priests. He then went to warn the head of the community who, frightened and saddened, kept silent. So not even the Jesuits of Ulóngwe, the nearest parish, knew anything about what had happened.

It was only on 4 November that Father António dos Reis, Superior of Vila Ulóngwe, managed to get permission from the authorities to go to Chapotera to see what had happened. When he arrived in Chapotera, a man told him that the priests had been killed, a short distance away. The missionary then returned to Vila Ulóngwe, to inform the Administrator and the Military Commander. On the same day, he returned to Chapotera with the military escort to collect the bodies of the priests, put them in coffins and take them to the village cemetery. They arrived at the cemetery around 7 p.m. They prayed and listened to some testimonies about the priests, using the car headlights to illuminate the darkness.

"Father João de Deus - says the Bishop of Tete, Monsignor Diamantino Guapo Antunes - was a man who radiated joy for his simplicity and spontaneity, and got along with everyone. He loved Mozambique and its people. Appreciated by all, he proclaimed the Gospel to all with respect and love. His apostolic zeal took him, even at the risk of his life, to isolated and difficult places. He tried to animate and encourage everyone. Together with his people he suffered fear in that atmosphere of instability, unleashed by arbitrary acts, injustices and violations of human dignity. Father Silvio" - continues the Bishop of Tete - was an active man, always ready to serve others in need. He was upright, sincere and frank, sometimes harsh, but without offending anyone. He was a brave man, aware of danger, but bold, like one who fears nothing. Virtues nourished by faith and trust. He was intelligent and lucid, very clear in communication. He used to bring examples from community life to illustrate and exhort".

João de Deus was born in Mozambique, in Nkau, on the plateau of Angónia (Tete), on March 8, 1930. Silvio was born in Portugal on April 16, 1941, in Rio Meão, Vila da Feira. Both had completed their secondary studies at the Apostolic School of Macieira de Cambra (Portugal): Father João from 1948 to 1951 and Father Silvio from 1951 to 1957. João had entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus on 1 September 1951, Father Silvio entered on 24 October 1957. Both had obtained a Licentiate in philosophy at the Pontifical Faculty of Philosophy in Braga in 1958. Father Sílvio left the same year for Mozambique to carry out his period of "teaching". They then attended a course in theology: Father João in Spain, at the Faculty of Theology of San Cugat del Vallés, in Barcelona, from 1961 to 1965, and Father Silvio in Portugal, at the Faculty of Theology of the Catholic University of Lisbon, from 1968 to 1972.
João was ordained a priest in Lifidzi, Mozambique, on August 15, 1964; Father Sílvio in Covilhã, on 30 July 1972. While studying theology, Sílvio had also attended the Instituto Superior de Ciências Sociais e Política Ultramarina (ISCSPU), which prepared personnel for the Overseas Administration. He was interested in this course because he wanted to learn about the legislation and the political orientation of Portugal in the Overseas Territories.

In Mozambique, Father João always worked in Angónia, while Father Silvio worked as a teacher in the diocesan Seminary of Zóbue (Tete), in the city of Tete and in Maputo. In 1984, the two Jesuits were both in Chapotera, and from there they began their missionary activity throughout the territory of the former mission of Lifidzi, fully committed to the work of building the Kingdom of God, which often requires not only proclamation, but also renunciation and denunciation. For this very reason they were killed on 30 October 1985.

'These two Jesuits, whom God brought together in 1984 in Chapotera - continues Bishop Diamantino Guapo Antunes -, were friends and shared what they lived. They have helped and encouraged each other, pursuing the same ideal, convinced that the Kingdom of God also requires denouncing unjust and oppressive structures. They gave their lives for this. They can be considered martyrs of justice. They were uncomfortable witnesses. They knew about the atrocities committed in that region and started denouncing them. When they could leave, they felt they had to choose to stay. And so they did. They remained in place, close to their persecuted people, until their bloodshed".

Bishop Antunes emphasised that "the beatification of the martyrs of Chapotera is very much felt and desired by Mozambicans. They were missionaries of faith, courage and charity. The current process is a sign of the maturity of the Catholic Church in Mozambique, a ministerial and martyrial Church. It is a call to courageous Christian commitment. Yesterday as today, the Catholic Church is called to respond with its effective and consoling presence among the martyred population, without ever ceasing to launch appeals for peace and reconciliation of the parties in conflict". The Bishop concludes: "The violence ravaging northern Mozambique, in the province of Cabo Delgado, has already made its martyrs among the Catholic community. The example of the martyrs of Chapotera, like that of the catechist martyrs of Guiúa and many others, is of great importance today. They are men and women who chose a life of witness and proclamation of the Gospel of peace and love. Their example remains and multiplies". (Agenzia Fides, 20/3/2023)