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Sinodo Africano / African Synod

The African Synod: A Task for the Future

The following is the transript of an interview I gave to a English-speaking mass media.

As it has been underlined by many commentators, the theme chosen by Pope Benedict XVI for the Second African Synod,  The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace,” is extremely relevant. It focuses on the main issues of the African public life today, issues on which the Catholic Church has the moral authority and the competence to speak and act, especially when considering the dramatic failure of the modern African states and governments, born out of the colonial time, to address them.

Before the Synod started, I heard African Catholic friends express some concerns. First concern was the total lack of interest by the “international” media. This lack of interest has persisted during and after the Synod but, personally, I do not believe we should be worried by it. We know the agenda of this mass media: Press people are not interested in the real independence of Africa, or in any serious religious event. They can write a long article on the possibility of an African being a pope, because it is a “curiosity,” but they do not care about the myriad of African Christians who live their faith with humble conviction, and would never publish an article on the fact that the Church alone takes care of almost half of the African HIV/AIDS sufferers. On the other side, Church synods are not held to attract or please the media; they are, first and foremost, meetings to deepen communion and self-awareness, and also a service to Church governance.

Second important concern, at least from some observers, was the fact that, in the Church, there appeared to be a number of “lobbies” who wanted, at all cost, to put forward their concerns. This is somehow normal, since in the African Church, as everywhere else, people have their own agenda and their own very legitimate and positive issues and, often, they spend their lives for them. They could be concerned with public health, HIV/AIDS, education, development, organic farming, environment conservation, mass media…, you name it. It is not surprising, therefore, that they see a synod as a chance to put a particular agenda in the limelight. It is an expression of the richness of Christian commitment. It could become a problem only if pushed too far, and fragmentation and confusion is created.

The need of new structures

If one reads all the interventions available and the final proposition presented to the Holy Father, it appears that the Synod fathers were able to avoid the trap of diluting their interest over many issues. The final propositions are well and strongly focused on the themes of reconciliation, justice and peace.

In fact, the propositions are much more elaborated than the proposition presented at the end of the first African Synod, to Pope John Paul II in 1994. The 2009 African Synod propositions present a serious analysis and a beginning of theological reflection on the main social and political situations of the continent. Moreover, they even go down to give practical pastoral and administrative guidelines, suggesting the creation of new structures so the African Church could carry on its service in a more effective manner. One could even think that the practical proposals are so numerous that they go far beyond the possibilities, in terms of personnel and finance, of the African Church. For those who know the reality of missions, parishes, dioceses in Africa, often struggling to provide the most basic pastoral and administrative services to the faithful, the realization of these proposals seems a dream too big.

It has already been observed that the follow up to the first African Synod has not been so strong. How will the African Church be able to implement the enormous task set down in the 2009 propositions? Are they destined to remain just words? If they are to be implemented, it will require a serious effort to spread them over several years. A fellow missionary told me: “I wish my bishop, on his return from Rome, will keep up the enthusiasm and set us all to work for reconciliation, justice and peace, according to the given perspective. We will have to work for the next twenty years just to see the beginning of their implementation, but it will be worthwhile.”

Dependence on the West

The synodal interventions have displayed also healthy self-criticisms, especially on issues referring to justice internal to the Church, such as the treatment of women, the payment of workers, and so on. To redress internal injustices is, undoubtedly, a work that has to be done.

In the light of the above there is an underlying challenge that does not appear in the propositions and even in the hall interventions. I am referring to the very unhealthy dependence that the African Church has on the West. We could say that we are not ashamed because this is a sign of fraternal communion but we have to admit that, too often, even in the Church, those giving the money dictate the way in and the aim for which it has to be spent. Where will the money to build the numerous new structures and commissions foreseen in the prepositions come from? And more importantly, what are the plans to make the African Church at least less dependent on the sister Churches in the North and West? Is nobody worried by the fact that, at national and diocesan levels, economic administration is still the reserve of expatriates? Does this fact really have no consequence to the capacity of the African Church to act for reconciliation, justice and peace?

A very positive point underlined by many is that the African Synod helps to build up communion in the Church. Bishops and cardinals, who rarely can visit each other and share their concerns, are given such a chance and, staying together for a certain period of time, allows them to know their strengths and pastoral problems and to discover how they are united by the same faith and the same Church. This is not a small achievement. Maybe, in the long run, it will be the most important achievement of the series of African Synods since, hopefully, they are going to continue. As a Synodal Father says: “There were internal Church politics and power games, of course, because we are humans, but they were kept to a minimum. We were all concerned primarily to reach a consensus about the service that the Church should provide for the growth of a more just society.” The Church is, first of all, communion and love in Jesus. If a synod strengthens this communion around Jesus, it can be said to have accomplished its task.

Waiting for the Second Synod for Africa

Is Africa the future of the global Church? Numbers are in its favour. In 1900 Sub-Saharan Africa’s catholic people were less than two million, but in 2000 they increased up to 130 million: an amazing growth that never happened before in the Church’s history. The atmosphere of enthusiasm and joy of being Christian makes the participation to a Mass into an African village an absolutely new experience for European Christians.

Somebody dreamed of 2009 as the year of Africa for the Church. The visit made by Pope Benedict XVI in Cameroon and Angola last March, the planned plenary assembly of Secam – the institution that coordinates all the African Episcopal conferences – which was supposed to take place in Rome at the end of September, and now the Second African Synod, in Rome, from 4 to 25 October and that is focused on the topic “ The Church in Africa in service of reconciliation, for justice and for peace”, were all justifications for a certain optimism. The stimulating reflections of Caritas in Veritate on relevant topics for developing countries, for Africa in particular, have created even more hopes. The African Bishops could perhaps take some step further the richness of the social teaching of the Pope, applying it to the concrete African context, or “inculturating” it, to use a word that was so much used by the first African Synod.

New expectations came from the arrival at the White House of an Afro-American President, whose father came from Kenya and his grand mother lives in a Kenyan village. Obama’s visit in Ghana in July, the one of the U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton in other seven African countries only few weeks after the President’s departure and the important African presence at the G8 in L’Aquila made hopes grow for an increase of political and financial measures suitable to get over the heavy historical and cultural burden that weighs on Africa.

However, the list of expectations and hopes ends suddenly here. Numbers, words , international meetings, bold proposals abounds, but actions are missing. Unfortunately, when talking about Africa – in the ecclesial as in a political contest – hopes and the most solemn pledges rarely translate into something real, tangible. Africa seems to be part of a different dimension, where words remain, always and forever, only words.

That’s why the up-coming synod is considered with healthy scepticism by several African intellectuals and leaders. The high hopes raised by the announcement and preparation of the first African synod, followed by a strict curial control, the exclusion of the best African theologians of the time from the synodal process, a carefully edited final document and little or no action, has not been forgotten.

The doubts on the result to the present synodal process, which, it must be said, has not been followed on African soil with particular interest, are that are well expressed by Monsignor Peter Sarpong, archbishop emeritus of Kumasi in Ghana, one of the survivors of an eminent group of African theologians and pastors who in the aftermath of the independence years lead the most important African dioceses.

He says, «I think that the preparatory document for the synod is too generous in evaluating the results obtained from the first synod in 1994. Considering the optimism that filters out the text a person could also wonder: what about the conflicts that go on in many areas of our continent?» And he adds, «I am not saying I have doubts about the sublimity of the ideas expressed. I am only asking about the possible solutions for these problems. How can we become the earth’s salt? What is needed to have a Church family of God and transform it into a catalytic agent of justice and peace?»

So, «the risk is that the Second African synod could be exactly as the previous one: an occasion to repeat big truths on the Church, but without suggesting practical applications.»

The African Church still lacks the capacity to influence the society to promote an integral human development. The causes are many, and go from the almost total dependency from the West in terms of financing, organization and theological research to the fast numerical growth of the faithful that stretches the already weak organizations.
A case in point is the fact that most of the few seminars and workshops organized in view of the Synod have been financed by Western donor agencies and the cancellation of the already mentioned Secam meeting in Rome. Last August 17 the current president of Secam had to announce its cancellation quoting as the main reason that the funds available were not sufficient to pay for the board and accommodation of the foreseen 250 participants. Yet such a meeting could have been an important moment to prioritize and coordinate the interventions in the synodal hall. This cancellation says a lot about the dependency of a church that is not able to raise enough funds for her own meetings.

But the contrast between words and actions is even sharper in the political and civil society field. In every African country high sounding declarations about democracy, human rights, economic development, fight against corruption, nepotism and tribalism are written daily everywhere. With rare exceptions of a slowly growing civil society, the reality is that represented by millions of refugees that moves around the continent in desperate search of a dignified life, and by the thousands that try to escape through ships across the Mediterranean Sea.

You do not escape from your home if you can have a dignified life there.

The faces of the people weeping when refused entry in Lampedusa is the hardest count of indictment against certain African governments and the unequal international system that feeds the monsters who are leading Africa. The image of a government that treads on human dignity will be a national shame for Italian people for years. But this is another story. Those images remember us ruthlessly that African people do not count, they are only and always losers, imploring beggars, even in front of their own leaders.

How can we surmount the negativity of those images? African bishops – whom are accompanied by a relevant group of non-Africans at the synod – should help us by saying something prophetical. Something that, just because will be really prophetical, will have not only the taste of courage and truth but also that could be able to move the best resources of the African Church to promote a deep internal renewal and an effective action in service of reconciliation, justice and peace. Then Africa will really start becoming the future of the global Church, not in virtue of the numbers, but in virtue of the vision and of the actions to implement the vision.

Il Secondo Sinodo Africano

Il Secondo Sinodo Africano si terrà nel prossimo mese di ottobre a Roma. Il tema scelto da Benedetto XVI é: “La chiesa in Africa al servizio della riconciliazione, della giustizia e della pace”.
Quando era stato annunciato il primo Sinodo Africano, tenutosi nell’aprile del 94, in drammatica quanto imprevista coincidenza con il genocidio Ruandese e la fine dell’apartheid in Sudafrica, erano nate grandi speranze che il Sinodo sarebbe potuto essere l’inizio di una nuova era per la chiesa africana. Non solo teologoi e vescovi africani, ma anche personalità di grandissimo rilievo come il teologo Bernhard Haring, avevano cominciato a sognare di un rito africano e di un Patriarcato per l’Africa, sul modello delle chiese orientali. Cosi non è stato. Il primo sinodo africano ha approvato, e disinnescato, la bomba dell’inculturazione, ancorando sicuramente la chiesa africana nel rito latino.Ma ha anche confermato, attraverso i numerosi interventi in aula sul tema della giustizia, l’impegno delle chiesa africana per la trasformazione del sociale, che fino ad allora alcuni osservatori consideravano come una dimensione minore nella vita della chiesa africana.
Ricordo, dopo la conclusione del primo Sinodo Africano, il commento disincantato di un Cardinale: “Ormai tutti i Sinodi sono diventati uno strumento di controllo e normalizzazione, non sono fatti per aprire a nuove pratiche pastorali, tantomeno a nuove visioni. Servono ad abbassare tutti al minimo comun demnominatore”.
Anche per questo imminente Sinodo Africano il lavoro preparatorio immediato non è stato particolamente approfondito e non ha neppure coinvolto un gran numero di fedeli. Ma, nonostante queste insufficienze ci sono delle premesse che possono far sperare in un Sinodo che superi la normale routine.
Innanzituto il tema, che ha una enorme rilevanza per la vita dell’Africa d’oggi. Anche se in Africa ci sono delle grandi isole di tranquillità e segnali di avvio verso condizioni di vita più giuste per tutti, non si può negare la presenza e la ricorrente esplosione di gravissime ingiustizie sociali e mancato rispeto di diritti umani, di guerra e violenza come metodo di soluzione di ogni tipo di conflitto, di una classe politc e dirigenziale tanto corrotta quanto incpace. Recentemente alla lista dei mali africani si sono aggiunti i disastri ecologici. Certamete non si può puntare l’atenzione solo su carestie, rifugiati, o sulle piste di migranti migranti in movimento verso l’europa alla ricerca di una vita più umana, ma non si può neanche negare che questi siano i grandi fallimenti su ciu l’Africa ha bisogno di riflettere e di fare dei programmi di azione.
E’ proprio su quesi temi che sta emergentdo una riflessione di laici che sta lentamente cambiando la\ percezione della realtà: I responsabili non sono più le vecchie e nuove dominazioni ma siamo noi. Per esempio lLe commissioni “Giustizia Pace” costitute dalla chiesa a livelo nazionale e diocesano – qualche voltea anche parorchiale – sono ancora fragili e sono riuscite a fare solo pochi passi concreti. Ma hanno fatto esperienza, sono vive e attive, e potenzialmente potrebbero mobilitarsi intorno ad un programma comune di formazione e azione. Oltre a queste commissioni ci sono una miriade di iniziative per giustizia, pace e riconcilaizion, magari spesso spesso condotte in modo velleittario, che però rappresentano un capitale importante di buona volonta e con le quali si può collaborare e ripartie isieme. In particolare non dovrebbero essere trascurate le iniziative di questo tipo nate nell’ambito del mondo musulmano. Questa ricca esperianza di vita potrebbe essere la solida base su cui il sinodo africano potrebbe costruire un programma e una visione.
I vescovi africani, sopratutto negli ultimi due decenni, sono stati stati sempre più partecipi della turbolenta storia africana. A volte ne sono stati vittime, anche pagando con la vita, a volte, purtroppo in qualche caso è successo, sono stati dalla parte dell’ingustizia e dei carnefici. Ma questa turbolenza li ha simolati a parlare e scrivere sui temi fondamentai della pace, delle ingiustie sociali, sfruttamento dei poveri, diritti umani, violenza, tribalismo, unità nazionale, bene comune, servizio. Da quanto so, sono stati fatti pochi tentativi di raccogliere e analizzare questa imponente massa di insegnamento episcopale e livello di tutta l’Afirca, e perfino i documenti preparatori del Sinodo l’ hanno sostanzialmente ignorato, ma sarà comunque presente in aula sinodale nella persona degli stessi vescovi e non potrà mancare di venire alla luce.
Infine c’è la grande rihceza di un magistero papale che su questi temi è continuativo, coerente, avanzato, elaborato senza essre chiuso. Un magistero che ha avuto il coronamento nella recente enciclica di Benedetto XVI “Caritas in Veritate”. Se il sinodo di ottobre riuscisse anche solo a “inculturare” per l’Africa questa enciclica sarebbe già un grande successo. Tra l’altro in essa ci sono delgi spunti nuovi, come per esempio quando il Papa introduce nel discorso economico il dono e la grauità. considerato da alcuni come elementi fondanti dell’economia tradiziale africana. Basti ricodare il libro di Serge Latouche, L’Autre Afrique, entre don et marché, del 1998.
Quindi la chiesa africana sa di avere non solo il dovere di riflettere e di dare indicazioni sui temi di giustizia pace e riconcilaizione, ma anche di avere il diritto e l’autorevolezz di proporli all’attenzione di tutti. Poche altre istituzioni africane possono vantare uno “stato di servizio” paragonabile a quello della chiesa in simili questioni. E ciò non è dovuto solo alle sue dichiarazioni ufficiali, ai trattati di teologia, ai seminari e simposi indetti sull’argomento, ma anche – e soprattutto – al sudore e al sangue di migliaia di fedeli e comunità che hanno profuso energie, offerto amore e, in alcuni casi, sacrificato la propria vita per costruire una società più giusta, riconciliata e rappacificata.
I segnali di debolezze non mancano. Primo fra tutti, perchè segno di una pesantissima dipendenza dall’esterno, la debolezza economica che diventa poi dipendenza in campi ben più impotanti per la chiesa. Cosi il SECAM (Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar), l’istituzione a livello più alto della chiesa cattolica africana, ha dovuto annunciare a fine agosto di annullare la propria 15sima Assemblea Plenaria che si sarebbe dovuta tenere a Frascati nei giorni immediatamente precedenti il Sinodo. Avrebbe potuto essere un momento di coodinamento degli interventi pù importanti, oltre a portare avanti il normale coodinamento. Era stata prevista in questo periodo per poter approffittare della presenza dei vescovi a Roma e non gravare i costi delle diocesi con un latro biglietto aereo per il vescovo. Eppure l’annullamneto è dovuto al fatto che i vscovi africani non ce la fano a pagare di tasca propria una decina di giorni in pesnioni di sandad medio.
E’ una situazione che la dice lunga sulla dipendenza di una chiesa che non ha i fondi per oganizzare i propri incontri.
Le debolezze non possono non far riconoscere alla chiesa africana una fondamentale coerenza, una una prontezza d’impegno tra la gente in termini d’interventi caritativi rivolti a tutti, a prescindere dal tipo di affiliazione, e una decisa volontà di lottare per la creazione di uno stato di diritto e spingere i governi a orientare le proprie politiche verso la protezione dei gruppi più deboli e vulnerabili.
Il cammino che la chiesa africana deve affrontare per superare gli ostacoli dei condizionamenti storici e culturali è ancora lungo. Ma questo sinodo, magari proprio perchè ci si aspetta ben poco, potrebbe sorprenderci con qualcosa di profetico.

Giustizia e pace, cioè chiesa

The best thing about the next African Synod is the aptness of the theme chosen by Pope Benedict XVI, “The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace”.
The theme hits the nail on the head. Issues of reconciliation, justice and peace are of extreme importance in the present African society, and the Catholic Church has the both right and the moral authority to address them. There are few African institutions, if any, that can compare their record with that of the Church on these matters.
The Church’s record is not merely composed of official declarations, theological books, seminars and symposia. It is also made up of the sweat and blood of hundreds and thousands of people and communities that have given their energies, their love and in some cases their lives at the grassroots level in order to build a just, reconciled and peaceful society despite the enormous difficulties they have had to fight against.
Even at the level of the hierarchy the efforts were notable. It is enough to think of the actions and positions taken in Mozambique, Sudan, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Northern Uganda.
Particularly enlightening is the case of the post-election violence in Kenya. When the rioting began, the Catholic Church, as with most Christian Churches, was kind of taken by surprise and was unable to deliver positive leadership. But even in that moment of confusion, hundreds of grassroots faithful did the right thing: they preached peace, encouraged reconciliation, sheltered those rendered homeless and opened their homes to the wounded. For a few weeks, it was a case of the sheep knowing what to do while the shepherds were confused.
Now, six months after Kenya’s post election violence was halted, tens of thousands remain huddled in displacement camps, relegated to an undesirable identity as refugees in their own country. As the new coalition government busies itself with routine governance and the dissipation of sporadic political mini-storms, the country’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are increasingly becoming a forgotten, sidelined group.
The IDP issue was relegated to the sidelines almost as soon as the dust from the ethnic skirmishes that killed an estimated 1500 Kenyans and drove another 350,000 from their homes settled, and a power sharing agreement created a coalition government headed by President Mwai Kibaki and Opposition leader Raila Odinga.
When the two leaders unveiled a 42 member coalition cabinet, the local media denounced it as “bloated” and many civil society organizations chided them for being insensitive to the economic implications of such a large cabinet.
Eager to get their new administration up and running, the two leaders hurriedly implemented a slapdash plan to have the IDPs immediately returned to their homes and farms.
Some legislators implored the executive to shelve the resettlement plan until all the factors that had precipitated the unprecedented bloodshed had been examined and resolved to prevent any future resurgence of such deadly turmoil.
Kibaki and Odinga ignored these pleas and sent army trucks to ferry the IDPs from the camps to their homes. Television images showed IDPs crowding around tarpaulin-covered trucks with deserted Red Cross tents in the background. Images of teenagers hoisting themselves to the backs of the trucks and women handing their crying babies to armed paramilitary officers before being helped to climb onto the trucks by good natured men with outstretched hands signaled hope. For a moment, it appeared as though the resettlement program had been a success.
Yet, murmurs that IDPs in some camps were being intimidated to leave surfaced almost immediately. These allegations remained unsubstantiated until Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) reported that it had witnessed government officials and armed police forcing people to vacate a camp in Western Kenya.
The Kenya Red Cross Society estimated, in mid-July, that nearly 70,000 IDPs remain stuck in refugee camps across the country. A chunk of these IDPs were frightened into returning after being welcomed with death threats by their ethnocentric neighbors.
A meaningful compensation for the IDPs is not forthcoming and meanwhile, Prime Minister Odinga, supported by legislators from the Rift Valley province, stoked controversy when he called for a general amnesty for suspects detained over the post election violence “in the name of reconciliation”. This proposal was roundly rejected by President Kibaki.
Pundits argue that the amnesty debate is informed by the fact that most of the detained suspects were from the Rift Valley, while most of the victims and IDPs were from Kibaki’s Kikuyu community. This implies that each side of the debate is tied by an obligation to “agitate” for “their people”
On the whole, the plight of the IDPs has slowly faded away from public consciousness and it is now used for political purposes..
The Church has however remained consistent in its pursuit of the issue, offering concrete assistance to the victims and reviving efforts for reconciliation and peace education.
In fact, the church has been active in promoting ethnic tolerance on a grassroots level long before, during and after the post-election violence. The Catholic Religious Superior’s Council has for instance worked to identify the roots of Kenya’s historical ethnic clashes, and has suggested measures to rescue the country from this circle. Its key proposals include poverty alleviation, the writing of a new constitution, the decentralization of political power, the formation of a truth and justice tribunal and the nurturing of responsible media practice.
Moreover, Parishes, Small Christian Communities and Religious Communities, were among the few institutions that took active action in the course of the post-election violence, providing shelter and all manner of support to the victims. The Catholic diocese of Eldoret especially made a great effort to provide accommodation, food and clothing to thousands of IDPs camping at its Sacred Heart Cathedral, and currently, Bishop Cornelius Korir and the Diocese are engaged in serious peace and reconciliation campaigns to mobilize the public against “tribalism” as a wrong perception of ethnicity.
Cardinal John Njue, as chairman of the Kenya Episcopal Conference, on June 16 rejected the call by some politicians for the extension of a general amnesty to all perpetrators of the killings and internal displacement that followed the 2007 election dispute, and rightly so, since impunity is a longstanding problem from the past that must be overcome.
A national faith-based peace building initiative to promote healing and reconciliation was also inaugurated on April 18 – a collaboration among a number of Catholic institutions coordinated by the Kenya Episcopal Conference. The initiative seeks to work with national leaders towards peace, healing and reconciliation amongst Kenya’s diverse ethnic communities, with particular emphasis being placed in the worst-hit areas of Nairobi, Nakuru, Kericho, Kitale, Eldoret, Kisumu and Kisii.
For certain, the Church and its leader have made some mistakes, the greatest being a failure to perceive how ethnically charged last year’s election campaign had become. Yet all the Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, have – since calm resumed in the country – asked the Kenyan people to forgive them for their lack of discernment and leadership, unlike the politicians who incited their supporters to violence yet now sit in Parliament and hold ministerial positions after consigning the IDP issue to gather dust on the shelves.
The statement issued at the end of the AMECEA Bishops’ Plenary Assembly also seems to have benefited from the Kenyan lesson. It is remarkably clear and concrete, with a serious political – in the best sense of the word – slant. It asks for the establishment of parliamentary liaisons offices and for observer status at the African Union and regional bodies. The statement further commits catholic institutions to get involved in the formation of leaders, and goes as far as asking Catholic lay professionals “to provide competent analytical data in order to help the church make informed and timely interventions.” It also calls on Catholic institutions, “to develop workable strategies and mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of our pastoral programs”.
Because of this fundamental consistency, long term focus, grassroots commitment and strong charitable activities that do not discriminate between ethnic and religious affiliations, Christian churches, – and it is important to underline churches, that is to say the major historical christian churches, with their lay memebrs – in spite of shortcomings, have kept a high reputation in most African countries. They remain the best placed institutions to compel African governments to redraw policies for the protection of the poorest and most vulnerable groups, and it hope that the Synod will help to sharpen their understanding and to increase their effetiveness.

Scusate, e il Dialogo?

And the Dialogue?


A shocking news: the yearlong full time academic course in Islamic Studies at Tangaza College of Nairobi has been suspended because of a lack of students. The course started in Rome in 1989 at the prestigious Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (PISAI) founded by the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers). The course objective was to give a basic formation for pastoral agents of the church working in Islamic regions. In one year participants learned a substantial knowledge regarding Islam and were prepared for encounter and dialogue.

After noting that the majority of students were from Africa, and after a prolonged evaluation, it was decided in 2000 to transfer the Islamic Studies course to Tangaza College of Nairobi. In the first three years in Nairobi, only two or three students were full time and for the past few years there were none. The teachers—all highly qualified—now offer only elective courses in the school of theology. Even if these elective courses are well attended and appreciated, it is evident that they are unable to prepare individuals for a specific responsibility.

Is this a sign that Christian-Muslim dialogue is still not considered a priority more than 40 years after the promulgation of the Vatican Council II document, Nostra Aetate?

This distressing question seems justified when reading the Lineamenta for the next African Synod. In the printed version circulating in Kenya, there is a single page of text dedicated to Islam and only one question in the final questionnaire. This out of 66 pages. A really paltry preparation for a synod on a continent where Islam has a considerable presence in a good many countries and has an enormous majority in countries such as Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Gambia, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Tunisia, Senegal, Somalia, and Sudan.

I spoke with Missionary of Africa Father Paul Hannon concerning this issue. Father Hannon has dedicated his entire life to the encounter with Islam, and, until a few weeks ago, was the Coordinator of the Department of Islamic Studies at Tangaza College. Currently he is preparing to return to a large parish on the outskirts of Khartoum, where he believes he may be able to exercise a ministry more useful to the Christian community and to his Islamic friends.

Why wasn’t the course in Islamic Studies successful at Tangaza? “One reason might be the high cost of living in Nairobi,” said Father Hannon, but, he added immediately: “we need to say, however, that the principal reason is that the encounter with the Islamic World is not a priority for the bishop and religious congregations, especially in places like Kenya where Muslims are a minority. While there are some Muslims, they are not the menacing kind—there is no urgent need to confront ourselves with them. And thus, we lose a great opportunity to develop relationships. In countries like Sudan, where the Church has suffered marginalization and persecution at the hands of the Islamic majority, the Christian community prefers to maintain a certain distance. I understand this reaction, and I certainly don’t judge those who have endured tremendous sufferings, but it seems to me that we must go beyond these incidents. Notwithstanding all this, we need to increase opportunities for encounters and showcase agreements which already exist.”

And yet some dialogue with the Islamic World seems to have started, even if the atmosphere is not very relaxed. After the provocation of Pope Benedict XVI at Ratisbon, there followed the October 2006 Open Letter of 28 professors at the Academy of Amman, and then, there were several high level meetings squeezed into the calendar; the last one was held in Rome. Eight delegates of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization of Teheran met and discussed with the leadership of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue on the topic: “Faith and Reason in Christianity and in Islam.” A real “civil dialogue” is slowly emerging, which is quite different from the “clash of ignorance” fed by those on both sides who rely on stereotypes and stock arguments.

According to Father Hannon, we shouldn’t overlook the possibilities of Islamic-Christian collaboration that emerge in daily life. “At a very basic level, before we begin to speak of dialogue,” he sustains, “we need to speak of encounter. First of all, we need to become aware that throughout Africa there are Muslims all around us. We need to ‘see’ their presence, recognize it and promote opportunities for encounters, not necessarily on religious themes, but on topics of common interests, such as, justice and peace, human rights, economic development and social equality. For example, the serious problems in Kenya recently could have become an occasion for common reflection and action. In Kenya there are some open and illuminated Muslims with whom it is possible to meet and begin a fraternal assessment on these themes.”

The Christian-Islamic encounter is potentially easier and more fruitful right here in Africa, where the Islamic community has absorbed often a spirit of tolerance and the capacity to live in harmony with neighbors, which is typical of traditional African cultures. It is enough to bring to mind the Islamic community of Senegal and the Sahel region in general.

Father Hannon speaks enthusiastically about the efforts of his confreres in Tandale, a suburb of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and about the Interdenominational Association of Kenya organized just a few years ago. Also, in Uganda, despite the resistance and misunderstanding of some Muslim leaders, the editorial board of the Ugandan interdenominational magazine, Together, was finally able to convince the members of the Supreme Council of the Uganda that dialogue is not a secret strategy of the Catholic Church to convert Muslims. Of even greater consequence is the experience of dialogue at Hajj Yousif on the periphery of Khartoum along the road to Kassala. It is here in August 2005 following the death of John Garang in a helicopter crash that there was lootings, violence and homicides. Garang was the leader of the fight for the liberation of South Sudan and many believed that Garang’s death was organized by the most intransigent Muslim forces. Nevertheless, though difficult, it was in this parish where authorization was given in 2006 for the first time in Sudan for decades to construct a church.

The theme of the next synod is “The Church at the Service of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace.” A first elemental reflection on these great themes reveals immediately two possible “movements” in regards Christian-Islamic relations in Africa. First of all, reconciliation between the believers of these two religions must start from acknowledging one another, to look each other in the eye, to  actively discuss divisions, conflicts and pass massacres (where these have taken place, like the one on the coast of Kenya) in order to learn how to look at our common origins and at the one God. The diocesan initiative in Mombasa, Kenya for street children did just that. The street children project had the inspired name: of “Sons of Abraham.”

The other movement would be an activity which would bring the faithful of these two great religions together in service of justice and peace for all people. This is not a dream. An understanding in this field is achievable, if there is reciprocal resolve. As Father Hannon stresses, when he speaks of the progress in the last few years, “it is important to say that where we see abundant fruit, it is because individual Christians [and Muslims] with courageous efforts leapt into action, allowing the Spirit to guide them.”

Returning to the Lineamenta for the synod, we can hope that this painfully inadequate text, even if it is only an initial reflection on the possible encounter and collaboration between Christians and Muslims, may have been substantially improved by the contributions of the African episcopate. Maybe the Instrumentum Laboris, the text which will serve as the basis for synod discussion and whose publication is expected within the next few weeks,will offer a vision better articulated and at the same time may it be more prophetic.

I Lineamenta e la Società Africana: un’Analisi Zoppa

The Lineamenta and the African Society: a Limping Analysis

The analysis of today’s African society cannot be disregarded if we want an incisive theology. This Synod – which bears in its title the words reconciliation, justice and peace could gift us with a shared vision of what is happening in Africa and how we might be able to react as Christians.

After the Preface and Introduction, the Lineamenta for the 2009 African Synod proposes a chapter entitled: “Africa at the Dawn of the 21st Century.” Chapters on Jesus Christ, the Church as sacrament of reconciliation, justice and peace in Africa, the witness of the Church through its members, and spiritual resources follow before getting to the conclusions.

The reflection unravels in simple and accessible language, even with the limits of the content mentioned elsewhere. (Vedi F. Pierli and F. Moretti, Nigrizia, September 2006, pp 10-14: The approach chosen, the methodology suggested, the texts cited, and the language used are old and “non-African.”) The first chapter is very feeble. The analysis of the contemporary situation of Africa lays out a list of positive and negative developments since the publication of the final document from the preceding African Synod and identifies some priorities, sorted into three groups: social-political, social-economic, and social-cultural. Then the role of religions is examined (traditional religions, Islam, and other Christian Churches) in terms of their service of reconciliation, peace and justice. The chapter concludes with some engaging questions and a first draft of a response offered by the Church. In this chapter there are 20 footnotes of which six are taken from various papal discourses and documents, 11 originate from the Lineamenta, Instrumentum Laboris, and the final document of the preceding African Synod and relative discourses from that synod, and finally one footnote with Web site of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), one footnote citing the statistics of the Annuario Pontificio, and one footnote referring to the Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, a French nun and mystic, who died at the beginning of the last century.

The entire chapter is a rational catalogue of facts and trends, but without any proper attempt at interpretation. It is only a catalogue, and not even an exhaustive one, which could have been done without any great difficulty by a journalist of intermediate competence regarding African facts. Even the citations are surprising because of the complete lack of authorities who are not strictly ecclesiastical, which we have become accustomed to find in the documents of Pope Benedict XVI.

And yet the theological prospective for the subsequent chapters rests on and develops out of this list of facts and footnotes.

The analysis of today’s African society cannot be disregarded if we want an incisive theology, if we want to propose advocacy, if we want to develop effective pastoral programs. At least this seems to be the reason for the synod: a moment of self- comprehension, and taking stock of the moment in history we are living in order to rededicate ourselves for the future. Otherwise there is the risk, as happened with the first African Synod, to propose for consideration a document which provokes no true changes.

But a careful and even concise evaluation of the impact on the Church that the first African Synod had, and even more, a serious analysis of the present situation does not appear to be a priority for those writing this text. Perhaps they want to leave this work for the synod itself, even if the experience of the preceding synods leaves behind many doubts that a work like this could be done in the synod hall.

From generic analysis only ineffective and generic visions and proposals are able to spring forth.

The success of liberation theology in Latin America was in part due to the fact that it began and flourished in an analysis of society widely accepted in the Christian communities, religious communities and among the bishops. The phenomenon had deep roots among Christian people, even if it was taken up, re-expressed and elaborated by professional theologians. It is, or was a shared vision of the present world interiorized in the light of Christian faith.

An analysis of African society and of the problems which afflict this continent has yet to be proposed, much less shared. One of the striking issues when speaking with the southern Sudanese Christians, who just emerged from a civil war which risks rekindling, is that their social-political analysis replicates fully the position of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) or other parties, but rarely is anyone able to articulate a vision of their society which is influenced by their Christian faith other than a mere veneer with no historic efficacy. The same observation comes to mind during the crisis in Kenya these past weeks. We have heard on the radio astounding interviews of Christians who admitted participating in the killing and burning of their neighbors’ homes. After affirming their repentance, they said that nevertheless they would have done it all over again, if their neighbors were to return. We saw the vast majority of Christians fall victims of a spiraling, exasperating and tribalistic interpretation of the facts. They were unable to understand that this interpretation concealed an underlying struggle for economic power by the two principal parts of the conflict; nor did they see the presence of foreign forces driven by particular interests. The connection between real life and faith came unglued, that is, a faith as guide for personal moral choice.

Perhaps the nexus is precisely the lack of a social analysis and a shared Christian “judgment” on present history. The same religious leaders often seem unable to see beyond their own little nook. They remain too involved in their small tribal reality, in the fact that their nephew married a relative of a certain politician; they are too attentive to an opportunity of finding a shortcut through the bureaucratic protocol; they are involved in corruption done without the exchange of money, but with the exchange of favors and with culpable silence.

Yet, if we think that a Christian intervention in the social arena is important, then it is crucial for developing an awareness of the problems, of injustices, of the powers that use Africa as a battlefield.

In the final pages of a wise and most recent book that has the merit of attempting to understand the reasons for African wars, the author writes:

“If we do not want to stop at the apparent and superficial aspects, African wars can be interpreted on three levels. The first level deals with the struggle for power within the political class of the continent. On this level the wide diffusion of conflicts and of corruption among the managerial class are two characteristics of the same processes.

“The second level deals with control of resources and their exploitation, which often are illegal even if carried on by governments: this economic system involves war as a constitutive element…moreover, this system modifies the entire productive structures of the interested areas for its advantage and creates new social equilibriums, which tend to perpetuate the conflicts.

“The third level deals with strategic interests of powers within the dimension of the globalized economy, beginning with the conflict over energy resources.”*

This is only an example—a debatable one—of an attempt to understand. It would be important for this synod which bears in its title the words reconciliation, justice and peace to gift us with a shared vision of what is happening in Africa and how we might be able to react as Christians. Perhaps this is too much to ask. It would be enough to begin to move us in that direction and to arrive at a process which renders African Christians as actors who are more informed and aware of the history we are living.

The quote is my translation from:

Sciortino, Alberto. L’Africa in Guerra: I Conflitti Africani e la Globalizzazione. Milano: Baldini Castoldi Dalai Editore, 2008.

Verso il sinodo Africano – La Parola agli Oppressi

Toward the African Synod – The Floor to the Oppressed

The African Synod in 2009 will bear the title: “The church in Africa at the service of reconciliation, justice and peace.” The victims and the experts of peace are the groups to be heard. The church should overcome the infertile overview of Africa contained in the Lineamenta and should face the question of tribalism without fear.
The African church held a “Consultation on the Crisis in the Great Lakes Region” in April 1997, three years after the genocide in Rwanda and the closing ceremony of the First African Synod. It was a high-level event financed by the Vatican and organized by the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM). Nearly a dozen African cardinals and representatives of the Roman Congregations and about 60 bishops and archbishops of the African continent attended. The media was not admitted to the meeting because of the delicate nature of the themes. The consultation was to be a serious examination of conscience for the church and its responsibility for events in Rwanda—in the person of bishops, priests and sisters. From this high-level consultation, everyone was waiting for a straight-forward document that would give practical directions on how the church should present itself and how it should react when faced with ethnic conflicts. The document of 10 pages or so was embarrassing in its poverty. It was a succession of stock points, of pious exhortations and of generic recommendations written in a overcautious language.
Incredibly, the first recommendation asked “the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples to continue to support the bishops of this region with special assistance and to strive to increase awareness of the need for solidarity between the sister churches of the world and these victimized churches.” Putting the request for funds at the top of the lists of recommendations exposed once more an unhealthy mentality of dependence. Instead of thoughtful concern about leadership training and the use of local human resources, there was an appeal for alms. Whoever read the documents did not get a sense of the urgency to establish concrete programs to educate people about reconciliation and how to live together in peace.
Only at the end, the very last recommendation, the bishops of the continent recommneded “to putin place a competent out-fit or think-tank which could help them in the analysis of problems and situations so as to alert the People of God in time and to intervene adequately especially in times of crisis.” Even now there is no information about the existence in the whole of Africa of any kind of structure which could be considered remotely as the implementation of this recommendation.
In fact, the 1997 consultation was quickly forgotten. Journalists were denied entrance to the conference room where the deliberation took place, and participants were under order of not giving interviews. Even to find the final document is not an easy job.

The Voice of the Victims

It is worthwhile to reflect on this “failure” because the Second African Synod, nearly upon us, is to be celebrated in October 2009 and to be devoted to the theme: “the church in Africa at the service of reconciliation, justice and peace.” This is an urgent theme today for the African church. In order to develop and deepen it, the question of ethnicity and ethnic conflicts needs to be confronted without fear and followed up with specific pastoral directives capable of opening a viable path on which the church can walk in the future. Ethnicity as a theme may be avoided only at the risk of irrelevance.
Not to repeat the usual stock points, the Synod could highlight the contribution of two particular groups.
First and foremost, the victims! A few days ago, while I was visiting a group of evacuees, following the recent post-electoral violence in Kibera, one of the shanty towns of Nairobi, a Kenyan friend said to me: “Why do our bishops imitate politicians? They limit themselves to statements on television, instead of coming here among us. I mean here—without their motorcar, their secretaries and the usual following of journalists. Let them come in work clothes, like these volunteers, to distribute bread and milk, to feed the hungry babies, to wash their clothes, and above, to listen to people’s stories. They would see their tears; they would hear their sobs. Only then would their words sound true.”
Perhaps Kamau was exaggerating. But his outburst reminds us that the suffering of the victims of war, of racial discrimination, and of ethnic conflicts should be compellingly present in an ecclesial African synod that wants to be credible. Things must be organized in such a way that real representatives of the affected human groups shredded by exasperated ethnicity may speak to the bishops. Thus, Africa would enter into the synod.
The Lineamenta, the preliminary document in preparation of the synod, sketches a portrait of Africa stubbornly even-handed, perhaps, but absolutely sterile. It does not help the Christian community to put love for the victims at the center of their attention. This “disengagement” (others speaking about Africa, not Africans speaking for themselves) becomes worrisome when the Lineamenta lightly touches on the responsibilities of the same churches—just as the 1997 consultation did. In the first draft of a document which the religious of Kenya are preparing as a contribution to the synod, this is precisely the apprehension expressed and they underline the necessity to speak honestly about the sin of the church. They indicate as critical points the role and practice of authority, the centralization of power, the presence of tribalism in the church itself, the compromising of the church in the face of politics. To give voice to the victims would help to be realistic and to overcome the errors of the past and the present.

The Experts

Experts and consultants in all filefs are fashinalble and overvalued all over Africa. When you see them in action, be they peace-makers, peace-keepers or peace-duecators, be they armed with only good intentions or with machine guns, you realize how often are painfully impotent in the face of challenges presented by armed conflicts. Nevertheless, just as the church in the past accepted and assumed the competence of experts in the most diverse human sciences, today the church ought to begin to make use of the experience and reflections of the “experts of peace.” Peace studies have made enormous progress. The nature of the Synod (an encounter of bishops) permits these experts to participate only marginally. That does not remove the necessity that the knowledge and the technical understanding they have developed should be available. There are Catholic institutions (Jesuit Refugee Services, Pax Christi and others) that have vision, worldwide experience and considerable structures in Africa. Their participation in the synod as experts could be employed advantageously. Above all, these groups could help the bishops produce not only general directives, but also to prepare concrete pastoral programs aimed at overcoming tribalism inside and outside of the church.
On the subject of ethnicity, a question which the synod could help to clarify is the issue of terminology. It happens that a problem is not dealt with because of the lack of an appropriate vocabulary or because certain words instill fear. “Tribe” and “tribalism” are terms practically disqualified because hey have taken an absolutely negative connotation. “Ethnic” and “ethnicity” are more neutral. “Community” is the word used now in Kenya that indicates one’s own ethnic group, even if it becomes clear only in a precise context.
The synod must find the right words for speaking about tribalism, but certaily to speak about it is a must. Otherwise the church will continue to find itself taken by surprise by the events, as it has happened in Kenya.

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