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ZAMBIA-RWANDANS (CORRECTED) Feb-2-2012 (560 words) xxxi

Thousands of Rwandans want church help to stay in Zambia

By Mwansa Pintu
Catholic News Service

LUSAKA, Zambia (CNS) -- About 6,000 Rwandan refugees in Zambia want the Catholic Church to help stop the state plans to repatriate them and instead to regularize their Zambian citizenship.

The refugees also want the bishops' conference to remind the government to respect their human rights and their right to choose where to settle, as indicated in documents by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Speaking in Lusaka Jan. 29 at the launch of a wide-ranging bishops' pastoral letter, the coordinator of the Rwandan refugees in Zambia, Kazuba Rwasibo Equide, asked the bishops to quickly intervene and stop the government's plans before they are implemented.

"The Catholic Church, world over, has a history of caring and providing for refugees. We equally appeal to you to stop the government from sending us back to Rwanda," Equide said.

"We are in constant touch with friends and family members back home, and we know that the situation is not yet very conducive for us to return," he said.

The Zambian ministry of home affairs announced recently it would join the UNHCR to repatriate Rwandan refugees because the situation in their country has normalized after decades of inter-ethnic violence and the 1994 genocide.

The compulsory repatriation was one of the topics addressed in the bishops' pastoral letter.

"We believe that it is not right for the office of the Zambian government's Commissioner for Refugees and the UNHCR to remove the refugee status from (Rwandan) nationals based in Zambia or those from other countries and to oblige them to return to their own country against their wishes," the bishops said.

They said they were "inclined to agree" with the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch and with Amnesty International "that this is not the time to facilitate the removal of the refugee status." They also noted that Zambia's refugee population has declined as thousands of people have returned home voluntarily.

"If anything, we would thus request the Zambian government to regularize the status of some refugees in this country and facilitate that they be accorded local integration, including freedom of movement and of employment," the bishops said.

During the news conference, Lusaka Archbishop Telesphore Mpundu urged the government to respect the rights of all refugees.

"Treat them with respect, just like the Zambians are treated wherever in the world they have settled," said the archbishop. "We should look at refugees as 'Christ amongst us' and regard them not as a threat, but a resource."

The archbishop said most Rwandan refugees had lived in Zambia for many years and fitted well among their Zambian brothers and sisters.

"I travel to many parishes around Zambia where most Rwandan refugees have settled," the archbishop said. "These people always come to Mass; we celebrate and eat with them, and we have no problem with them at all. In fact, most of them are happier here, and they would love to stay. It's one world."

He urged the Zambian government to emulate great Africa leaders such as the late Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, who granted citizenship to most refugees in Tanzania.

"Like Christ once stated, we should love our neighbors as ourselves. The refugees are our neighbors, and we need to love them," the archbishop stated.

When contacted on the matter, the UNHCR declined to comment and referred all queries to Zambia's Home Affairs permanent secretary, who was not immediately available to speak on the issue.


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