October 10, 2003
In November 2001, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
approved at its general meeting a document entitled “A Call to Solidarity
with Africa,” which addressed the bishops’ growing concerns over
the plight of Africa and the Church’s response to its African brothers
and sisters. These are excerpts from the Bishops’ statement.
“We stand with the Church in Africa; we seek to call attention to Africa’s problems and potential; we want to amplify the voices of Africa, so that they can be heard by a sometimes distracted world.
“We are called to a much greater commitment of resources
and energy [because]:
•Our faith demands it…
•Our sisters and brothers are asking for help…
•Our world needs our effort….
•The United States has special responsibility…
•We can make a difference…”
“Our voices can join with others to encourage a sustained, just, and comprehensive engagement of the world’s vast resources to generate lasting solutions that respect the full, human dignity of our brothers and sisters in the poorest countries of Africa.”
“As Catholics, we embrace the universal character of our Christian identity, an identity that ‘transcends national boundaries and calls us to live in solidarity and justice with peoples of the world.’ As Americans, we acknowledge the singular position enjoyed by the U.S. as one of the wealthiest nations on earth, but privilege cannot be divorced from responsibility.”
“The United States has a clear moral duty to adopt policies and support programs that encourage integral human development and long-term economic growth for the poorest countries, with particular attention on sub-Saharan Africa. This is not just a policy option; it is a moral obligation.”
“We encourage dioceses to help Catholics to educate themselves about Africa and commit themselves to the promotion of justice, peace, and development through public advocacy.”
“U.S. Catholics help promote a just and equitable development in Africa [through]:
•Self education and involvement in public advocacy
•Diocesan and parish twinning”
Notre Dame University Institute for Church Life took on the task for organizing and implementing the first phase of a two-part conference from September 21st thru 23rd, the second phase to be held in Nigeria come January 2004.
The conference brought together scholars, relief workers, students, advocates, and religious groups from all over the world.
The President of Nigeria, his Excellency Olusegun Obasanjo delivered
the keynote address on Sunday at the Joyce Center on the picturesque campus
of Notre Dame. Speaking to the audience, the President called upon the United
States and all of its Western allies to keep the issues of Africa at the fore
front of international conversation. “These are difficult days for Africa,”
he said. “Thus, whenever an opportunity like this present itself…we
try not to let it slip through our fingers. We wholeheartedly support the
efforts of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the University
of Notre Dame…and all the people who have made this conference happen.”
He also elaborated on the issues of democratic institutions, the peace process
in Liberia including other pressing issues affecting the continent. “Rather
than spending too much time on the Book of Lamentations, we would do well
to rather move onto the Book of Revelation,” he said. “We conceded
that it was imperative for Africa to strive in a shared vision…to rescue
our continent from the edge of oblivion.”
The President responded to three questions from the audience. The Liberian crisis, of which Obasonjo took initiative, drew the most attention. When asked why he granted asylum to indicted ex-Liberian leader Charles Taylor, wanted for crime by the United Nations backed court in Sierra Leone. “It was the best thing to do and I did it. I would not turn Mr. Taylor over... because I am a man of my word,” he said. The audience applauded him. Nonetheless, delegates mainly from Nigeria were not pleased by the president’s response and decision to grant Taylor’s asylum. One speaker who asked to remained anonymous said, “I thought my President was arrogant on this matter.”
The archbishops of Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Most Reverends John Onaiyekan and Laurent Monsengwo-Pasinya highlighted the role of the Church at the service of Africa. Both men outlining the role of the Church spoke passionately of the complex nature of Christianity in Africa from slavery to post colonial Africa. “The Church must be of presence to the people of Africa in a relevant way today.” Onaiyekan said.
The Monday mass held at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart was presided over by the Most Reverend Wilton D. Gregory, of Belleville, Illinois and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He used the theme of William Butler Yates as echoed by Chinua Achebe: “Things Fall Apart…the Center Cannot hold,” he said. “There is chaos…but God can once more restore order.”
Also present was Mr. Andrew Natsios, Administrator of the US Agency for International Development, speaking on the role of faith-based organizations in Africa’s development. Natsios outlined the Bush’s administration ambitious plan to actively be involved in Africa. When told that farm subsidy in America was killing the livelihood of thousands of Africans especially cotton farmers in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Benin, he blamed the problem on the Europen Union but acknowledged the reality of the African farmers.
Other speakers who graced the occasion were Professor Francis Deng, former ambassador from Sudan to the United Nations, now a fellow at the Brookings Institutions in Washington DC. He spoke on the religious roots of the conflict in the Sudan, one of Africa longest running civil wars. The professors whose interjection of humor and mastery of the English language captivated the audience. He pinpointed the crisis of identity as the foremost cause of the civil war. “Africans who think themselves as Arabs in the north of Sudan have formed this compulsive identity…feeling threatened by Africanization,” he said. “Invented identity is terrible and painful…Sudan means the land of the Blacks” Father Michael Perry of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the US Council of Catholic Bishops in response, said, “ There is a critical need to address the nature of conflict that can lead to sourceful solution.” What center do we recreate when the center can not hold no longer?” he asked. On the issues of health, Dr. Wanda Alli Balogun spoke on the role of the Catholic Health Services in Nigeria. With the failing public health infrastructures in Nigeria, it is the Church that now shoulders the burden of the ordinary citizens.
As the conference drew to a close, an overwhelming resolution focused on the need of United States to reorient its foreign policies to make a greater and more realistic commitment to global poverty eradication, with priority attention given to sub-Saharan Africa, reflecting the values and hopes for all people around the world. The conference concludes, “Commitment instead to human solidarity enables us to make the world a welcome place for all, especially the poorest of the poor.”