IMAGINE that civil war has broken out in France, forcing millions of refugees to seek asylum in Britain. They are crammed into sprawling, squalid refugee camps in Norfolk, where they scrape by on daily food hand-outs. The French government believes that armed rebels are hiding among the refugees and so it orders the French army to raid the camps. Other European countries sense Britain's weakness and try to take advantage of it. Sweden, Holland and Germany launch a full-scale invasion. Ireland, Belgium and Denmark pitch in to help Britain to expel the invaders. In the confusion of war, Britain is parcelled up into little provinces, dominated by different national armies and local militias. Over the next five years all sides commit atrocities, and the death toll rises to three million people.
In the United States daily newspapers hardly mention what is happening in Britain, except for the odd brief news item headed "Death toll reaches three million mark". Now and again there is something on television, but viewers are left confused about the origins of conflict. Opinion polls find that only 10 per cent of the population are aware that there is a war in Britain; there are much more important issues at home.
This far-fetched scenario is being played out as we write in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the midNineties, millions of Hutus fled Rwanda and settled in eastern Congo. The influx of refugees destabilised the country and over the next five years troops from Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Zimbabwe and Namibia fought to a standstill on Congolese soil. These events provoked little interest in Britain. Government ministers — notably Clare Short expressed sorrow at the war's human cost and did their best to get the warring parties talking; but they soon realised that the British public was indifferent to events in a God-forsaken African republic thousands of miles away.
Caritas-Italy has now criticised the "silence" and apathy surrounding fight ing in the Congo. Aid agencies point out that the country is hosting the bloodiest international conflict since the Second World War, and yet despite occasional reports on the most grisly massacres Caritas-Italy says that "more in-depth information is lacking, especially an analysis and denunciation of what is happening".
These comments should provoke an examination of conscience among Catholics. Using the traditional formula, we must ask ourselves some searching questions: have we informed ourselves about what is happening in the Congo? Have we contributed to charities that relieve the suffering of the Conglese people? Have we pressed our elected representatives to raise the issue with the Government? And, most significantly, do we really, truly care about the suffering of people with whom we share nothing but our common humanity?