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Two Jesuits murdered during Mozambique’s civil war could be martyrs says Bishop of Tete

Father Sílvio Moreira, a Portuguese priest, and João de Deus, a Mozambican-born priest, were assassinated in 1985 at the Chapotera mission in Mozambique because they were inconvenient witnesses to the atrocities of the civil war. The Bishop of Tete will begin the process for their cause to the sainthood on 14 August. Below is a translation of the article by the Portuguese Jesuit website, Ponto SJ.

The diocese of Tete in Mozambique will begin the process of canonization for two Jesuits killed in 1985 at Chapotera mission. Father Sílvio Moreira, a 44-year-old from Portugal, and Father João de Deus Gonçalves Kamtedza, a 54-year-old Mozambican, were brutally murdered on 30 October 1985, by an armed group that took them from their home in Chapotera, assaulted them and left their bodies abandoned in the forest. 

Although the perpetrators of the homicide were never established, Bishop Diamantino Antunes of Tete believes the two missionaries were killed because they denounced atrocities of the war, defended the dignity of the Angonian people and were, therefore, considered “inconvenient witnesses” to the abuses of political and law enforcement authorities. The diocese believes in their martyrdom and will propose their canonization in a process set to begin on 14 August 2021. 

“The crime did not have religious motivations,” Bishop Antunes told Ponto SJ. “But martyrdom is not only about hatred of the faith but also of virtues linked to faith, such as justice or charity”.

The two missionaries were killed because they denounced atrocities of the war, defended the dignity of the Angonian people and were, therefore, considered “inconvenient witnesses” to the abuses of political and law enforcement authorities.

The bishop was visiting Portugal to gather information and testimonies, and to consult the archives of the Portuguese Jesuit province, in order to advance the cause of canonization for these two Jesuits. He talked with several Jesuits and informed them of what had already happened in the process, and of what still needs to be done to elevate the two priests to the condition of martyr. 

Bishop Antunes highlights the virtues of the two missionaries, who were deeply committed to the pastoral care and dignity of the people they served, even when it meant denouncing the climate of violence that was being experienced in the region and, thereby, put their own lives at risk. The existing records attest to their courage and their faithfulness to the people; helping to bury the dead (even in the face of threats from the authorities), offering pastoral encouragement to communities and administering the sacraments—sometimes in secret to avoid attracting the attention of the military forces. Marriage was an example of this, says the bishop of Tete, because the priests realised that after marriage, the army would come to recruit the groom for the war, leaving the wife on her own. They, therefore, started to celebrate them in secret.

Fr Sílvio Moreira, from Vila da Feira, with his sister Eulália.

Another episode that clearly proves the Jesuits were not afraid to face the authorities is reported by Father José Augusto Sousa, who was Father Moreira’s superior when he was the vice-provincial of the Society of Jesus in Mozambique between 1975 and 1981:

One day, he found four bodies hacked to death in the maize fields of the Satémwa mission and went to report the incident to the police in Vila Ulongué. It was thought, at the time, that the police themselves had killed the people. He was a fighter for justice and human rights. The police were not happy with this confrontation by Father Sílvio, who upon finding the bodies went to interrogate the police.

Courageous, fearless and always fighting for the people, the two missionaries chose to continue serving their church, even after they were advised to leave the region (even by their superiors) at a time when many religious were being kidnapped and killed.

Among the many testimonies he has heard, the bishop of Tete underlines one which came to him from the guard at Chapotera mission, who lived with the Jesuits and whom Father Moreira and Father Kamtedza had advised to return to his village with his family just a few days before the attack.“They sensed that anything could happen and still they wanted to stay. They voluntarily agreed to stay.”

This testimony coincides with others the bishop has collected and with the phrase from the Gospel of John that runs through many of them. “The good shepherd does not abandon the sheep in time of danger.” The bishop says he has heard this biblical quotation from those who testify the importance of the mission of the two Jesuits in this region of Mozambique where the Society of Jesus has concentrated its pastoral activity in recent decades.

Amid the delicate and violent times that the country was going through, Father Moreira and Father Kamtedza were aware that if they left the mission, the same thing that was happening in other communities would happen to theirs: the military would come and burn down the houses so that the people would be forced to leave—in a scorched earth policy. “The missionaries, by staying there, were a form of security for everyone,” said the bishop. “They did not want to abandon the people.”

The two priests had been in Chapotera for little more than a year when the attack took place in 1985.

Immediately following Mozambique’s independence in 1975, the Lifidzi mission was occupied by [the ruling] Frelimo and the Jesuits living there were left without the large church and other premises of the mission, which included boarding schools for boys and girls, a hospital, carpenter’s workshops, locksmiths and other facilities. They began at once to consider, as an alternative to this busy mission of Lifidzi, the creation of a small new mission on the site of Chapotera. Thus, the Jesuits were martyred in a place where the Christians there treasured the presence of the priests, not only because they evangelised the people but also because they helped in the fields of health and education.

Father Kamtedza at his first mass in Fonte Boa, in 1964.

The documents and statements that are now being examined and compiled by the head of the Diocese of Tete account for the fact that on the night of 30 October an armed group took the Jesuits to an uncertain place. Some Christians in the village noticed their absence and thought they had been kidnapped by [the opposition] Renamo, but it was only when they did not show up for Mass on 4 November that rumours of their death began to circulate. One of these Christians informed Father Domingos Isaac Mlauzi, who lived in Malawi, about what had happened and he phoned Maputo to give the sad news to the superior of the Jesuits in Mozambique.

The account given at the time by Father Luís Gonçalves confirms the fame of martyrdom that the Bishop of Tete has found in the testimonies of the people—who have been passing this account on from generation to generation:

“There is no doubt that the priests, João de Deus and Sílvio Moreira, can surely be considered martyrs of the struggle for justice. They were inconvenient witnesses. They were aware of the atrocities committed in that region. They had begun to protest and to denounce. Even though they were able to leave, they remained at their post, close to their people, persecuted on both sides, frightened by the violence.”

The information collected leads to the further belief that the primary target of the attack was Father Kamtedza—a priest of great intelligence with an extraordinary work ethic who was much loved by the people of Angónia—who is said even to have been invited to become a bishop. But when the attackers seized him and took him away, Father Moreira reportedly said: If my colleague is going, I am going too.

Father Moreira, in the middle, during the visit of the Provincial, Fr. Manuel Vaz Pato, to Maputo.

Bishop Antunes shares with Ponto SJ how he has been surprised by the impact the witness of these missionaries still has among the people. Although he got to know this story more than 20 years ago—when he saw a prayer card of the missionaries in the window of a watch shop in Maputo, the owner of which had been a parishioner of Father Moreira—and later heard of the Jesuits on many other occasions, the bishop of Tete says it was only last year, during the celebration of the 35 years of their martyrdom, that he became aware of the importance of these deaths.

“I was impressed by the crowd that turned up for Mass. And they explained to me that it was always like that, even when the priests didn’t organise anything”, he confesses, at once recognising: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire and, in these cases, the fame is a sign that something important is behind this”.

Following this experience, the bishop approached the council of diocesan consultors and seeing the enthusiasm of the older priests, who knew the slain Jesuits, realised the need to advance the matter. He consulted the Society of Jesus and the Bishops’ Conference and then wrote to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican.

Now, other reports and consultations will follow to find out if there is any difficulty, inconvenience or impediment to this cause. Not least, said the bishop, because “there are political issues behind it and it is not a peaceful thing”. However, Bishop Antunes concludes, “it is good not to look for the authors of this crime so much as the causes and the reasons for the deaths, and above all, the witness”. The opening of the diocesan phase of the cause for canonization is already set for 14 August at the Seminary of Zóbué, in the presence of the whole diocese.

About the martyred missionaries

Father Sílvio Alves Moreira was born in Rio Meão, Vila da Feira, on 16 April 1941, the youngest of 13 brothers. In 1952 he entered the minor seminary in Macieira de Cambra, owned by the Jesuits, and later entered the novitiate in Soutelo. Afterward, he studied humanities and philosophy in Braga, before, at his own request, he departed for regency in Mozambique. He returned to Portugal to study theology at the Catholic University of Lisbon. In 1972, he was ordained priest and returned to Mozambique, where he taught at the Zóbué seminary and later exercised pastoral ministry in Matundo. In 1981, he went to Maputo and served as a parish priest and teacher. After a period of rest in Portugal, he returned to Mozambique in 1984, where he was assigned to Angónia, together with Father Kamtedza, to minister to the Christian community of the Lifidzi mission, specifically in Chapotera.

Father Moreira was 44 years old when he was murdered.

Father João de Deus Gonçalves Kamtedza was born in Vila Mouzinho, Angónia, on 8 March 1930, son to a Portuguese father and Mozambican mother. He was baptised there but later completed his high school studies in Portugal, at the seminary in Macieira de Cambra. He studied philosophy in Braga and theology in Barcelona. According to Father José Augusto Sousa, he was an extraordinary man, close and friendly to his people, inspiring joy and enthusiasm among those with whom he worked.

Father Kamtedza preaching in Fonte Boa.

* First published in Ponto SJ, the online portal of the Jesuits in Portugal. The original article is by Rita Carvalho and is written in Portuguese.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.