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Stephan U. Neumann

Continent of Opportunities


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 44/2009, P. 491 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Africa's Catholic church appeared self-confident and self-critical during its three-week synod in the Vatican. That Africa is not perceived as a continent of opportunities, is primarily due to the lack of leadership in politics and society - but also in the church.


More than two hundred African bishops have met for three weeks with representatives of the Vatican Curia on the topic "The Church in Africa in the service of reconciliation, justice and peace." The results were adopted in 57 theses. The bishops want - it says inter alia - to strengthen democracy, fight corruption, intensify the dialogue with Islam and traditional African religions, and make the pastoral care for AIDS patients more professional. Based on the results of this work Pope Benedict XVI will together with the Secretariat of the Synod compile the final document.

The Vatican seems currently to look gladly to Africa, because here the number of Catholics is considerably growing in a global comparison. In 1900 just 1.9 million Africans belonged to the Catholic Church, in 1994 already 102.8 million (14.6 per cent) and in 2007 according to Vatican information 164.9 million, i.e. 17.5 per cent of the inhabitants of the continent. The increase in the absolute number can be explained largely by the population growth. But the percentage increase shows that the church is appealing also for non-Christians, at least in some parts of the continent.


Bibles for the People

The situation of the Church in Africa's forty eight countries varies significantly. North of the Sahara there are Christian communities since the first century. With the rise of Islam from the 8th century onward Christianity has strongly been repressed, and so Christians are today a minority there. In Somalia just 0.1 per thousand profess the Christian faith. In the south, the Europeans attempted only from the 16th century onward to do missionary work, although with little success. A second, more successful wave followed in the 19th century. With more than 16,000 health care centers and nearly 10 000 schools the church is above all committed to education and health care.

But the Mozambican Bishop Adriano Langa is afraid that the continuing trend toward Evangelical and free-church communities could slow the growth of the Catholic Church in the future. The attractiveness of the Pentecostal movements and of the so-called independent churches he sees primarily caused by the omissions of the Catholic Church in the area of inculturation and evangelization. Even in the recent past, e.g. people were forbidden to read the Bible. There were too few Bible translations in local languages, and in liturgy and prayer people were deprived of the possibility to express themselves in accordance with their roots. According to the Bishop of Zanzibar, Augustine Shao, a serious dialogue with traditional African religions is necessary, because even many Christians still follow the traditional rites. If the exchange with the original cultural roots fails to happen, the Christians would be deterred from talking about their actual belief. The result: People who appear on Sunday as Christians will exert their traditional religions in the other six days.

In Europe, Africa is often perceived not as a Christian continent, but rather as a continent of natural disasters, famine, corrupt despots and tribal and civil wars. Africa is in fact a part of the world full of poverty, misery and war, as the Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson as rapporteur of the African Synod has already conceded in his opening statement. But Africa would also be a continent of opportunity. Those who do not succumb to the biases often spread by the media could tell that democracy grew stronger and the cultural and political sensitivity increased.


A Political Synod

One example for it is Tanzania. Within a stable democracy with regular elections, the government has invested in education and infrastructure and supported the development of independent media. The self-confident Church has its share in this development, even though among the forty millions Tanzanians the Christians are only the third-largest religious community, after the followers of traditional African religions and Islam. As Norbert Mtega, Archbishop of Songea reported, it was "a real shock" when after the first African Synod in 1994 the bishops have introduced the Church's social teaching into the political debate. But in the meantime it had been understood even in the government that "the social teaching of the Church gives light for the future of the country and even for politics."

A church whose message has a political effect, without being caught up as one player among many others in the turmoil of everyday politics - this ideal is also conspicuous in the final 57 theses of the Second African Synod. Anyway, in terms of what so far leaked from the working groups the focus of this Synod was less directed at liturgical and pastoral issues. Rather, the social and political tasks of the church on the continent were the focus of the discussions. Accordingly, the Church wants to strengthen democracy on the continent and to make the politicians familiar with the principles of a fair and transparent ballot. The topic of the synod "Reconciliation, Justice, and Peace" is thus a vision that has to be realized in concrete terms by small-scale experiments in order to become reality. There were divergent views on the level reached in this process. The synod's rapporteur Turkson pointed out that wars have diminished, and so only four of the 48 states are at war.

By contrast, Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya drew a gloomy picture of Kinshasa. In relation to the first synod, there are now more murderous wars. "Right now we have many child soldiers and horrific violence against women as a weapon of war - things that you have not seen fifteen years ago ...



If we fail in realizing the huge project of reconciliation, Africa is heading for its doom," predicted the archbishop of the capital of the so-called Democratic Republic of Congo.

In Sudan the situation is equally dramatic, where some bishops are afraid that the country splits into a Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south. Here, too, the nature of violence has changed, as Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako emphasized. While in the past the conflicts between different tribes, which were utilized by politics, often pursued a goal, as e.g. the access to water and pastures, today warlike gangs indiscriminately slaughter people. "That are massacres; it is a killing without a goal. And the victims are children and women rather than men," said the archbishop of the diocese's capital Khartoum.

Is reconciliation possible at all in view of such brutality? The report of Sister Genevive Uwamariya from Rwanda makes clear what reconciliation means, what is required of victims and perpetrators, so that they are able to look each other in the eyes. Her parents belonged to the 800,000 people whose lives were wiped out within just a hundred days in 1994. "I escaped the genocide in Rwanda," told the nun. "I was then driven mentally by revenge and hatred against those who had killed my parents and kidnapped other family members." But Sister Genevive overcame her hatred and accepted an invitation to reconciliation in Rwanda's prisons. "I also met those who had killed my parents. They told me the details, for instance, how my father was dressed when they killed him. And suddenly I felt how the whole burden dropped off me." When the man wailed "Please, forgive me," they had sobbingly fallen into each other's arms. The nun called on the prisoners to write letters to the families of their victims and to tell them the truth. "Gradually I received more than 600 letters. And once again something surprised me: The victims of violence answered the letters of the murderers. Many have then even met each other. That was fantastic."


Abuse of Power in the Church

Even church representatives were complicit in murders. Recently, in Florence a Rwandan priest was arrested. In 1994 he allegedly participated in a massacre of eighty students. The accused, against whom an international arrest warrant has been issued, had already in May rejected similar allegations of an African human rights organization. Cardinal Polycarp Pengo, the chairman of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), expressed his dismay over the fact that many Catholic priests have been accused and convicted of involvement in violent conflicts. Abuse of power, tribalism and ethnocentrism in the church had to be addressed openly, said the archbishop of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

That in South Africa still tensions even among white and black candidates for the priesthood occur shows how difficult it is to implement reconciliation within the Church's life. Even fair wages in the church and the sharing with the poor seem to be denied too often. "It is a scandal, when at the end of the month officials of the parishes, who have humbly done their job, take home only holy water," said Cardinal Francis Arinze. The former prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship demanded that the collection is of benefit not only to the priests but also to the poor.

Furthermore, the proportion of women in church bodies has to be increased also at higher levels. Many contributions show that women are still on the fringes of society; in wars but also in marriage they are exposed to sexual violence; they are suspected of witchcraft and therefore brutally murdered, or are driven into forced marriages. Women have not infrequently to live in polygamous marriages. Bishop Matthew Kwasi Gyamfi from Ghana suggested that women who got without their fault into polygamous relationships should under certain conditions be allowed to receive the sacraments.

The openness and self-critical attitude in these statements can and must be seen as a first step in removing one of the major obstacles to an independent development: the lack of managerial responsibility. Wolfgang Schonecke, who worked for his order Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) for decades in Africa, has pointed to this fundamental problem before the start of the Synod in the "Herder Korrespondenz" (September). In order to change something, he declares himself in favour of a reorientation of Catholic educational institutions, by referring to the former Catholic student and now corrupt despot Laurent-Désiré Kabila (Congo) and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe). For "Catholic schools achieve admittedly the best academic results across Africa, but they have apparently failed to implant the pupils a sense of social responsibility that is strong enough to oppose the pressure of their own clans and the ruling culture of corruption." A self-critical and self-confident church would be able to develop a vision of a good exercise of power. "Creative, forward-looking leadership would mean ... to develop from the values of African tradition, the achievements of Western culture and the message of the Gospel modern African, Christian forms of life and society," says Schonecke.

In order to achieve this goal there is needed a deepened dialogue with Islam and other religions, as the African Bishops have established it in their final report. For conflicts between tribes and religions are often fueled and abused by the wielders of power in order to achieve their own - mostly political and economic - goals, emphasized the Archbishop of Nigeria, Matthew Manoso Ndagoso during his recent visit to Germany. That's why an "atmosphere of reconciliation and dialogue" is to be created, in which the representatives of religions could meet, and peaceful coexistence becomes possible.

In Sudan or in Somalia such an approach may seem at present completely utopian. But the African Synod showed how much the situation of the people differs, and how differently the various religions present themselves. While Sudan is full of violence, there are e.g. experiences of Christian-Muslim cooperation in the Caritas Mauritania. Martin Happe, who comes from Westphalia, is bishop of the sole Mauritanian diocese. He reported that 110 of the 120 employees of Caritas are Muslims. Like all other employees of the Catholic aid organisation, they had declared in writing that they will respect equally all people in need of help, regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation. In a diocese that is three times as large as Germany and where not more than 4,000 people are Christians - the vast majority of them foreigners - the alternative to cooperating with the Muslims would be to abandon the charitable mission of the church.


Arrogance of Fortress Europe

The problems of the countries and of the church were clearly addressed during the Synod; the will to new departures, however, was equally obvious. The people in Africa need the solidarity of the universal Church as well as the help of rich countries, in order that the continent of hardship continues to develop into a continent of hope and opportunity. For the realization that the lack of leadership responsibility of African leaders is a core problem must not serve as "fig leaf for the responsibility of developed countries, which have a huge share of the responsibility for the underdevelopment of the continent by unfair trade, brutal exploitation of resources, air pollution, arms trafficking and support of corrupt regimes," said Wolfgang Schonecke.

Quite a few African bishops criticized not only the refugee and commercial policy of the sealed off Fortress Europe, but also the European arrogance towards Africa and the lack of respect for its people. The almost complete failure of reporting on the synod in European media seems to confirm this European ignorance. The self-critical analysis of social and religious structures in Africa should in this part of the world give cause for both a critical reflection on economic as well as on political power structures and on a church that promotes admittedly various European influences but still has trouble with taking the cultural roots of others seriously.

Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, the Rapporteur of the synod, who was appointed by the pope as the next president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, can use his new, world-wide influence in order to demand a new quality of leadership in church and state. Pope Benedict XVI said in his closing message, "Get up, Church in Africa, Family of God ... Set out on the path of a new evangelization which ... also involves an urgent appeal for reconciliation, an indispensable condition for instilling in Africa justice among men and building a fair and lasting peace that is open to the contribution of all people of good will irrespective of their religious, ethnic, linguistic, cultural and social backgrounds. In such a challenging mission you are not alone; the whole Catholic Church is near to you with its prayer and active solidarity."


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