The bishop of the small, southern African kingdom of Swaziland has called for prayer and reflection in response to a road accident that killed as many as 65 young girls preparing for the country’s Reed Dance festival.
“We mourn the death of so many young girls," Bishop Jose Ponce de Leon of Manzini said Aug. 29.
“Each one of us had been entrusted by God with the safety and dignity of these young people," he continued.
“Aside from those directly responsible for Friday’s accident, we need to ask ourselves if there was anything more we could have done to prevent it. Why do we wait until something like this happens before we take every single life seriously?"
The girls were riding in an open flatbed truck to cut reeds for the annual dance festival that celebrates Swaziland’s Queen Mother – and where the country’s polygamous king chooses a new wife.
The truck carrying the girls smashed into a van along the Mbabane-Manzini highway on Friday.
Bishop Ponce de Leon cited the Prophet Jeremiah’s words: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamenting and weeping bitterly: it is Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they are no more."
He asked the faithful of Swaziland to dedicate a week of prayer for those who died.
“Let us also pray for their families and friends that ‘the God of all consolation’ (2 Cor 1:3) gives them peace and strength," he said in a statement.
The bishop also encouraged reflection and solidarity.
“I call on you all to be close to the families of these children and to support them in every possible way," he said.
Bishop Ponce de Leon voiced thanks for the prayers and messages of solidarity that other Catholic leaders, including the Southern African Bishops’ Conference, had sent in reaction to the accident.
Swaziland’s government said only 13 girls had died in the accident, the Associated Press reports. The Swaziland Solidarity Network, which put the death toll at 65, accused the government of undercounting the fatalities.
The human rights group rejected the government’s use of open flatbed trucks to transport large numbers of dancers to the festival.
The Reed Dance, which has been criticized as sexist by human rights groups, brings about 40,000 colorfully dressed, unmarried, and childless girls in beaded skirts to the royal residence. They bring reeds to reinforce the residence’s windbreak.
Swaziland’s King Mswati III, who has more than a dozen wives, traditionally chooses a new bride from the dancers.