Christmas Joy in the Midst of Civil War in South Sudan

USCCB's Stephen Hilbert

Stephen Hilbert, USCCB

December for most Christians is a month of expectation and holy celebration of the birth of Jesus marked by family gatherings, exchanging presents and sharing meals. In the mostly Christian country of South Sudan, during the 40-year civil war against Sudan, Christmas tragically marked the beginning of “fighting season”. By December, rains had stopped long enough for dirt roads to dry and allow for movement of troops. Finally, in 2005, the civil war ended with a peace agreement that led to South Sudan’s independence in 2011. At long last, Christmas could reclaim its place as a joyous and holy day of celebration.

It is beyond tragic that just over a year ago in December 2013, South Sudan descended into bitter civil war ignited by internal political and ethnic rivals fighting over power and wealth. After a year of continued violence, thousands of men, women and children have lost their lives and about 2 million people have been chased from their homes, many facing possible famine.

In September 2014, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of South Sudan declared that “…the current war in South Sudan is evil, as we have said in previous messages. There is no moral justification for any further killing. We can accept no excuses or conditions from any party or individual for the continuation of the war. The fighting and killing must stop immediately and unconditionally.”

Last Gaudete Sunday (ironically, the ‘Sunday of Joy”), Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro, the president of the South Sudan Regional Bishops’ Conference, noted that “…the foundation plan of the administration of the Nation has not been put in place properly. … Let us accept and find ways of treating our ethnic/tribal divisions in order to heal them from the roots through sincere and honest reconciliation.”

The USCCB has supported the people and church of South Sudan for years. The chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace has visited the country almost annually, including during the joyous celebration of independence in July 2011. During his last visit in July 2014, Bishop Richard Pates, the then chairman, expressed his deep sorrow and solidarity with South Sudan. He encouraged the church to continue its work to stop the fighting, relieve the suffering and to heal the social wounds in the country. Bishop Pates was grateful for the partnership that Catholic Relief Services had forged with the church in South Sudan and for all the work they have done to address humanitarian needs caused by the violence. The Committee has been in regular contact with the United States Government to thank them for their work to halt the civil war and provide emergency assistance, and to encourage them to intensify their efforts to bring an end to the war.

You can join us in helping the people and the church in South Sudan through your prayer and your support for the great work that Catholic Relief Services is doing in close collaboration with the Church. Your help at this time will be one step towards restoring Christmas joy for the people of South Sudan.

Stephen Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa and global development at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Learn more about the USCCB advocacy on Sudan.

The Church in Africa Speaks Out for Democracy

On October 30th the Parliament of Burkina Faso was to vote to amend the country’s constitution, allowing the President to serve beyond the currently prescribed term-limit of two, five-year terms. In the days leading up to the vote, violent protests in the capital city Ouagadougou broke out that culminated in the burning of the parliament building and the resignation of President Compaore on October 31st. The military installed Lieutenant Colonel Issaac Zida, a senior member of the Presidential Guard, as the country’s interim leader.

The Catholic Church commended this civic initiative, but also expressed grief and prayers for those who lost their lives in the demonstrations. The Church urged respect for “the authority of the forces of order and security” and emphasized the need to ensure the safety of persons and property. The archbishop of Ouagadougou, Cardinal Ouedraogo, called the seizure of power by Lt. Col. Zida unconstitutional because the transition of power should be ensured by civilians. Still, the cardinal appeared hopeful about an end to the crisis due to the willingness of the different parties to engage in dialogue.

Much of the international community also called on the military to turn over power to civilian control. The African Union set a two week deadline for such a turnover before they would enact sanctions. It is fortunate that the Burkinabé church, civil society and international actors persisted in their advocacy because on November 17th the country returned to civilian rule. A transitional charter backed by the church was signed, diplomat Michel Kafando was appointed the new Interim President, and the constitution was reinstated. In addition, Lt. Col. Zida stayed on as minister of defense while other military leaders took charge of three other ministries.

The attempt by the deposed Burkina Faso president exemplifies an all too common pattern throughout Africa. Burkina Faso is just one of fifteen African countries with a leader in power for over ten years, seven of these leaders for twenty-five years or more. Since 1990, leaders in eleven countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have tried to change or abolish term limits; seven of these cases were successful. It looks likely that leaders in another seven countries will push similar term limit changes in the coming years. [1]

The situation in Burkina Faso clearly shows that civil society wants accountable leaders and good governance, not the monopolization of political power that occurs when constitutions are amended and term limits weakened. Earlier this year, the Catholic Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo spoke out against a similar measure to alter that country’s constitution. They said such a change would be “a step backward on the road to building our democracy and would seriously undermine the harmonious future of the nation.” The USCCB worked to amplify the local Church’s message that “The happy future of the DR Congo lies undoubtedly in the strict adherence to our Constitution.”

As the Church in Burkina Faso and other African nations undergoing similar challenges begins to speak out about these threats to good governance, the Church in the United States will work to magnify these messages in order to encourage nonviolent civil society participation and government accountability for the common good.

Stephen Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa and global development and Julie Bodnar is an intern at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

[1] Adam Taylor, “Burkina Faso’s long-serving leader resigns – and why it matters,” The Washington Post, October 31,2014,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/10/30/why-burkina-fasos-attempt-to-topple-a-long-serving-leader-matters/ ; Ken Opalo, “As thousands protest against term limit extension in Burkina Faso, will other African presidents take note?,” The Washington Post: Monkey Cage, October 28, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/10/28/as-thousands-protest-against-term-limit-extension-in-burkina-faso-will-other-african-presidents-take-note/.

Ebola: Immediate Crisis, Long-term Challenge

USCCB's Stephen Hilbert

USCCB’s Stephen Hilbert

On January 6, 2014 a 2-year-old girl dies in the forests of Guinea in West Africa. Her parents and community mourn a loss that happens too often in this part of the world. What they didn’t know was that her death was the start of the worst outbreak of Ebola in world history.

Three months later, the disease was identified as Ebola, by which time the virus had spread to neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia. It then burst onto the world stage with desperate scenes in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. By late October, the disease had entered neighboring Mali, infecting 40 people.

Now about 10,000 cases of Ebola have been identified and about 5,000 have died. The World Health Organization (WHO) calculates that the number of cases could double every three weeks if the outbreak is not brought under control. The virus spreads because local health systems in these countries are weak. These nations are still struggling to recover from long civil wars that occurred in the 1990s. They are among the poorest nations in the world. In 2012 Liberia had a per capita income of $782, compared to the United States at just under $50,000.

The response of the US Government was relatively quick, but insufficient. Since then, the United States has committed $750 million and 4,000 troops, largely financed from the Department of Defense, and has deployed almost half of that amount. But the United Nations estimates that it needs $1 billion immediately to build a response capable of slowing, if not halting, the spread of Ebola. Bishop Richard Pates, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice & Peace, wrote to the National Security Council to urge our nation to work with other donor nations to expand their efforts to stop the virus

The Catholic Church, which sponsors between 40% and 70% of African health facilities (WHO), has also acted in response to the crisis in West Africa. Pope Francis expressed his grave concern for “this implacable disease that is spreading especially in Africa, and in particular among the most disadvantaged populations”. He urged the world community “to take all necessary measures to eradicate the virus and to alleviate the suffering of those who are so sorely afflicted”.

The Church is mobilizing its Caritas organizations to distribute hygiene kits to families, training clergy and other community members, broadcasting Ebola messages on the radio, and providing food to families affected by the crisis. In September, Catholic Relief Services committed $1.5 million to increase its efforts to conduct Ebola education services. On November 4, representatives from Caritas agencies worldwide will meet to coordinate efforts to rapidly increase their response.

There is a challenge beyond the immediate crisis of containing the disease. The international community needs to help strengthen health systems in developing nations to prevent future outbreaks of such diseases.

You can support the Church’s work to stop this deadly disease by contributing to Catholic Relief Services and urging our government to do more.

Stephen Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa and global development at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

 Go deeper:
Join Catholic Relief Services in ending the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Fr. Edward: Witness of Faith in Central African Republic

Bishop Pates in Central African Republic

Bishop Pates in Central African Republic

In July, Bishop Richard Pates, Chairman of the Committee on International Justice & Peace, traveled to Bangui, Central African Republic. He visited the campus of the Major Seminary of Saint Marc on the outskirts of the city.

The tree-covered campus is normally a quiet place for religious study and peaceful reflection. But when rebel forces overthrew the government in March 2013 and serious fighting in Bangui broke out in December 2013, that all changed.

Near the seminary, the fighting started in a Muslim neighborhood and Notre Dame Fatima parish. Thousands streamed into the seminary compound seeking shelter, according to Fr. Edward Tsimba, CICM, a missionary priest from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the seminary’s rector. He said they housed them as best they could on the seminary grounds, in classrooms, dining rooms, dorms, the chapel, and even the piggery, to provide shelter from the rains.

They had urgent needs for water, sanitation, food and tents for temporary shelter.  “I have always believed that if you act with whatever you have at hand, God will take care of the rest”, said Fr. Edward. “I used all the money I had to provide water and food. Soon money ran out. That was when humanitarian organizations came to help.  They brought food, medicine, kitchen materials, tents, and helped us with our water supply.”

Then people came with illnesses and small wounds. The seminary had to search for medicines and first aid supplies to deal with malaria, diarrhea and minor cuts.  Fr. Edward bought what he could, and outside organizations helped set up a small clinic.  Fr. Edward is not a doctor, but learned a lot of simple medicine from this experience.

The displaced filled classrooms for three months. Classes were suspended for the 34 seminarians who also worked to provide for the needs of their new guests. Other Catholic orders offered the seminarians space where they could pursue their studies until the end of the school year.

Fr. Edward found the enormous workload tiring.  He and the seminarians worked from sunup to sundown scrambling to care for the 10,000 people who came to their doors. At times he was awoken in the middle of the night by an urgent knock on the door to resolve a fight that had broken out or to get help for a woman in labor. One sad night a delivery went very badly. The mother lost her child. They had to bury the poor child during the night in secret by the light of a motorcycle.

There were days when the crowds of people, constant noise, stress, fatigue and even discouragement overwhelmed Fr. Edward. He would escape to his office and turn on the air conditioning to block out the sound of distressed humanity outside. He would get up the next morning barely refreshed and go outside to his veranda. There people who had slept on the concrete floor would smile and greet him with a hearty, “Bonjour, Rector!  How did you sleep?” The greeting stirred him from his sadness and gave him the courage to carry on.

Children flocked around Fr. Edward as he walked among the camp tents. He has taught the kids the fist bump and the kids love it. “They hit my hand hard. I blow on it as if to cool it down and invite the kids to do the same. One day a new mother came to me to tell me that she was going to name her child ‘Rector.’” He told her that his name is not Rector. “Then what is your name?” she asked.” “My name is Edward.” “Then it is Rector Edward,” she said. He laughed heartedly. The child is a girl.

Six months later, the number of people sheltered has dropped to about 9,000.  Classrooms and the chapel are being cleared so classes and masses can resume. “When I asked people to help clean the chapel, they went to work immediately and right after we held mass to thank God for the improvements in the situation and for the grace to continue on.”

“This experience has taught me, the other teachers and the 34 seminarians lessons we could not learn in class, like how little it takes to be happy,” Fr. Edward shared. “Many of the displaced have lost everything, yet they remain welcoming to each other. I have learned how resilient and strong the human spirit is. When people of God call on their faith to deal with their terrible losses and find the courage to move on, it is an inspiring thing to watch.”

Stephen Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa and global development in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Learn about the USCCB’s advocacy on the Central African Republic.