After Cardinal Maurice Piat’s homily where he made what was perceived as a political speech indirectly reproaching the government with many scourges in society, we speak to the vicar general of the Catholic Church, Jean Maurice Labour about this and many other current issues. Read between the lines.
The Catholic Church has so far steered clear of politics. Then suddenly, the cardinal comes out and in his last homely on the occasion of Father Laval almost openly criticises a number of ills which, we have to admit, the Mauritian population is suffering from. Is this a new trend?
It is not the first time that we have engaged in social issues, something which is compatible with the Catholic faith. In French, there is a nuance between 'le politique' et 'la politique'. Le politique involves social issues. Some people, even media, say that priests, cardinals and bishops should stay in the sacristy, in the church and should restrict themselves to prayers and devotion. However, Jesus said, "I was hungry, you gave me food. I was a prisoner, you visited me…" – Matthews Chapter 25. Jesus identifies himself with the poor, with the homeless and those who are in difficulty. It is therefore common practice for the Catholic priests to engage in social issues. I am the chaplain of the diocesan Justice and Peace Commission, which is present in more than 160 countries in all the dioceses of the world, our mandate is to make known the social teachings of the church, which try to advocate and develop social engagement in the name of our faith.
This manifestation of your faith is new though, isn’t it?
No, it isn’t. As far back as February 2020, well before the outbreak of Covid-19 and the Wakashio shipwreck, the pastoral letter pinpointed the fact that there are structures of systemic, economical violence in our society in the sense that it is rooted in our regular practice. Even if we don't have riot for now, there is structural violence in our constitution and in our economical system. One must fight for an economy which does not exclude the poor.
What do you mean by ‘violence in our constitution’? How can our constitution be violent?
There is constitutional violence in the whole electoral system based on ethnic and religious compartimentage with the concentration of power in the prime minister’s hands, the best loser system, the discrimination in the public sector and society. All this was mentioned in the pastoral letter. The Covid-19 pandemic and the ecological catastrophe fragilised everyone even more. We can’t be insensitive to this. We can’t love God and not love our compatriots. When Jesus was asked "What is the 1st commandment?” He replied to love God and to love others.
“The price of drugs has dropped drastically because it is very easy to get drugs everywhere.”
We are not talking about love, we are talking about involvement in politics. You can love people and help people but what has happened recently is that there was an open criticism of the policy of government and the cardinal even talked about drug trafficking and said that the Wakashio may have been carrying drugs…
Cardinal Piat did not intend to speculate about the Wakashio and drug trafficking. He only wanted to say that all the mystery about the Wakashio, added to the ecological catastrophe, was making Mauritians very uneasy and creating a suspicious climate that is not good for the country. The population is waiting for clear explanations from the government. If this information is not true, the authorities should deny it publicly. If they don't deny it, public opinion is allowed to think that there is some sort of complicity. This perception is compounded by the fact that the Lam Sang Leen Commission specifically pinpointed that it was through big vessels that drugs are coming to Mauritius.
Are you saying that the prime minister is aware of and is condoning this, or even part of it?
I think that if he does not stand up to deny this, the population can be led to believe that there is some sort of complicity somewhere.
A complicity beween the prime minister and drug traffickers?
I don’t know if it’s the prime minister but, when you are the prime minister of a country that has a major drug problem, one of your authorities should try to dismantle it. If you see something wrong, you should not let it go.
What if Pravind Jugnauth was ‘not aware’?
Recently, through media, M. Jugnauth said that he is fully aware of the problem. But one must admit that drug trafficking has reached unprecedented heights. As Cardinal Piat said in his homily, drug traffickers operate in daylight, with no fear. M. Jugnauth set up the Lam Shan Leen Commission that raised much hope in the country. Unfortunately, we have not seen many results till now. We see too many families crying for a father, a mother or a child victim of drugs.
Do you believe those who are saying that there are more drugs in this country today than ever before?
I have been told by social workers I am in contact with that these days, the price of drugs has dropped drastically because it is very easy to get drugs everywhere.
The cardinal said in so many words that drug dealers are no longer afraid and that they are dealing drugs openly. Do you really believe that there is involvement at the highest possible level in this country?
Unfortunately, over the years, there have been many grey areas surrounding drug trafficking in Mauritius. This has given way to perceptions of involvement at the highest level.
Talking about Cathedral Square, you did not go to the protest, did you?
No, and I will tell you why. I did not agree with the participants asking to 'fou li deor'.
Don't you think that if the accusations being made above and elsewhere are true and that the country is sinking because of drugs and decimated families while contracts are being shared between cronies, it is legitimate to ask for the guy to go?
Just as the Wakashio captain said there is a ‘fracture’ in the Wakashio, there is a similar fracture in the country and a rift between the government and the people. People who were in Port-Louis and Mahebourg asked for a change of the system in which all governments have been working.
But we don’t remember the cardinal criticising other governments. Isn’t this government, operating under the current system, the worst we have seen as far as the ills in society are concerned?
Cardinal Piat never targets any government as such but feels free to question any government on social issues such as education, family problems, poverty alleviation etc.
Cardinal Piat used the term “our” march, thus owning and condoning it. Isn’t that taking sides?
Honestly, it was a slip of the tongue. We share several ideas with civil society but the recent protests brandished several different slogans.
There was agreement on one, which I can’t repeat in your presence…
(Laughs) Yes, I know which one!
“When you are the prime minister of a country that has a major drug problem, one of your authorities should try to dismantle it. If you see something wrong, you should not let it go.”
If that’s what the people want, don’t you respect that?
What people want must be structured. The problem is that Bruneau Laurette is someone we don’t know. There are all sorts of rumours…
One of the rumours is that the Catholic Church is behind him. Are you?
Not at all. I, as administrator of the Cathedral, gave him the permission to use the Cathedral Square because I firmly believe that anybody, of any faith or any culture, should be given the right to express himself. Even if I don’t agree with everything he says, this is the liberty the church advocates. I need to see a team of professionals behind him. He is alone.
How can he be alone when there were 150,000 people walking behind him and large numbers of the Mauritian Diaspora?
The large numbers translate and catalyse the anger of the people but it is not enough. Civil society should now make well-structured proposals.
Were you surprised by the unprecedented number of Franco-Mauritians walking alongside ‘ordinary’ people?
Yes, I saw that.
Why are they out in the streets?
I think because that is the only way they can talk to the authorities now.
“We share several ideas with civil society but the recent protests brandished several different slogans.”
How come? They are always going in and out of the corridors of power, aren’t they?
Do you remember what Mr. Espitalier Noël said in one of the newspapers? He said that there is “no structured dialogue”. We can meet in informal social meetings but there is no structured dialogue. So you can understand why they would walk in the streets to express their anger. But I repeat this anger has to be translated into structured proposals in different sectors of society. And, as the cardinal said, the government has to listen to the people. And we have to rethink the whole system. Who is going to do this?
Aren’t you underestimating the competence and experience of the people who are not at the decision-making table today? Do you believe there are enough competencies in our national assembly today to handle that?
There are people who are competent on both sides but these people must be able to work in dialogue and synergize. On the side of civil society, mobilising people for two or three marches is well and good but it is not enough. On government side, there should be openness to listen to proposals from civil society. It seems that there is a consensus today that the changes we need in the system call for reforms of the constitution. This is why we could dream that this government calls for a constitutional conference.
Back to reality?
Back to reality, I would like civil society to show a team of professionals who can rethink the system and come up with realistic proposals to advocate for change.
Ok. Are you going to the protest tomorrow?
Because I think I have different ways of showing my solidarity. I don’t have to walk to show that.
How do you show your solidarity?
I can talk to them and give some advice. I don’t think a priest should be everywhere. We can’t always be at the forefront of everything as people would like us to. We can be at the back office and help.
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