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African interfaith summit sees strong Anglican presence, underscores connectedness

By Matthew Davies
7/24/2006

ENS Photo by Matthew Davies
Participants at the Church World Service's July 18-21 Interfaith Summit on Africa.   (ENS Photo by Matthew Davies)

 
[Episcopal News Service]  More than 50 faith leaders from 21 African countries joined U.S. policymakers and advocates in Washington, D.C., July 18-21 for the Church World Service's Interfaith Summit on Africa, which provided an opportunity for religious leaders to articulate issues critical to the African continent.
 
Ten African Anglicans from Burundi, Gambia, Guinea, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda attended the event. Those leaders -- who represented 8 of the 12 Anglican provinces on the continent -- worked closely with leaders from the Episcopal Church and Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) to develop strategies for pan-African coordination on issues of violence and conflict, Christian-Muslim relations, health crises such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
 
"The summit provided an excellent opportunity for Anglican participants, representing most of the African continent, to build relationships and collaborative strategies for carrying forward the mission of the Church," said Alexander Baumgarten of the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations in Washington, a summit participant from the United States. "There was a very strong sentiment that our mutual engagement with the life-and-death issues facing Africa is at the very heart of the ministry of reconciliation to which God calls the Church."
 
According to Baumgarten, specific strategies emerging from the meeting include responses to the crises gripping Northern Uganda and the Sudan, religious coordination in the fight against malaria (efforts that have been led by ERD), a renewed focus on gender empowerment, advocacy to governments on issues related to AIDS and the MDGs, religious leadership on issues of accountability and transparency among African governments, and new efforts for Christians and Muslims to respond to Africa's challenges together.
 
Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi of the Anglican Church of Burundi said that the summit had been instrumental in bringing together ideas "so that we can influence the decision-makers here in the U.S. and those who make policy, so that in their daily deliberations they are conscious of the issues in Africa."
 
He explained that such meetings are also essential in order to network, consult, and exchange information so that various programs and initiatives are not duplicated unnecessarily.
 
During 13 years of ethnic violence, which claimed more than 200,000 lives, hundreds of thousands of Burundians were either internally displaced or became refugees in neighboring countries. A majority Hutu government, led by President Pierre Nkurunziza, was elected in 2005 after an internationally brokered power-sharing agreement was adopted between the former Tutsi-dominated government and Hutu rebels.
 
In June 2006, the last remaining rebel group in Burundi signed a peace pact with the government.
 
Concerned with post-conflict construction, the main challenges facing the Anglican Church in Burundi are peace building, poverty, HIV/AIDS, and integration, which involves resettling military and ex-refugees amid a shortage of land and employment.
 
"The infrastructure needs to be rebuilt and the spirit has to be reconstructed to instill trust and confidence among the people," Ntahoturi said, noting also the challenge of malaria, and expressing gratitude for ERD's assistance with the Church's malaria program, particularly in supplying nets for distribution throughout the country.
 
"The HIV problem is attacking every family," he continued. "We are concerned mainly with the children and mothers."
 
Of Burundi's total population of 7 million, 900,000 children are orphans, some of whom are the heads of their families.
 
"Pray for the young people who have been involved in fighting, that they may get reintegrated in the community and become employed, otherwise they may be tempted to return to the bush or use their guns in other ways," Ntahoturi said. "I dream of a united and reconciled Burundi, one in which young people are able to return to work."
 
The Rev. Canon Grace Kaiso, an Anglican who is executive secretary of the Ugandan Joint Christian Council, acknowledged a connectedness between church leaders from the U.S. and Africa during the summit. "We have been able to empower our counterparts here to advocate much more relevantly around the critical issues that are facing Africa," he said.
 
The 20-year insurgency in northern Uganda, led by the Lord's Resistance Army, has resulted in the displacement of two million people.
 
"Many children have been deprived of education and being able to grow up in an environment that would shape them into responsible citizens," Kaiso said, noting that the war has also spilled into southern Sudan, which is threatening its own peace process.
 
The Ugandan churches have been instrumental in responding to the humanitarian needs, assisting the displaced population, and advocating for intervention. Bishop Nelson Onono-Onweng of the Diocese of Northern Uganda, another participant at the summit, heads a group called the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, which is working to bring peace in the region. He and Kaiso briefed summit participants on the crisis and began discussing strategies for how U.S. religious leaders can support the peace process.

"Currently, we are advocating for a peaceful resolution to the conflict and we are appealing for the support of all peace-loving people around the world to back the initiative of the vice president of southern Sudan," Kaiso said. "Fortunately, the government of Uganda has responded positively to this initiative and has sent a powerful delegation to Juba where the negotiations are taking place."
 
For Bishop S. Tilewa Johnson of Gambia, the summit was "a wholesome experience" which provided an important opportunity to create the space to reflect and identify key issues.
 
"We have been able to put on the map very effectively what could be done about the causes and effects of human displacement," he said, upholding the challenges of uprooted persons as a key priority of the Church's ministry. "We need to address how we minister to the stranger."
 
Quoting former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, Johnson said that nine tenths of the population should be committed to change. "I think managing and averting conflicts and also promoting peace with justice is my prayer for all," he said.
 
Bishop Albert Gomez of Guinea said that all his expectations for the summit had been fulfilled. "We had a very conducive atmosphere so that people could truly express their feelings about the situation in Africa," he said. "It is not always easy in Africa to speak boldly and loudly because of all the pressures."
 
Highlighting the Summit's important interfaith component, Gomez added, "We have the same vision for Africa, the same willingness to be involved, so that the situation can be changed for the better.
 
Other Anglican participants in the summit included Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, Primate of Southern Africa; Archbishop Josiah Fearon-Idowu of Kaduna, Nigeria; Bishop Valentine Mokiwa of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania; the Rev. Mark Akec Clen, general secretary of the Sudan Council of Churches; and Mrs. Helen Wangusa, vice president of the All Africa Conference of Churches based in Kenya.
 
"One of the greatest strengths of the Anglican family is that we are able to speak from a variety of vantage points, backgrounds, and experiences," said Baumgarten. "The Communion's advocacy and engagement on issues affecting Africa is one example of this richness, and this week's summit reflected a strong desire for this not only to continue and grow, but also to include brothers and sisters from different faith traditions."
 
"By coming together as Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Orthodox, Jews, et cetera, we find we have the same goals, the same end, the same visions, the same objectives and the same willingness to be agents of transformation, and that is a sign of hope," said Gomez, who described the week as "a kind of discovery," because the different African countries often work in isolation.
 
"Every country is doing something positive as far as HIV is concerned, conflict resolution, malaria," he said, "but we have discovered that in almost every part of Africa the problem is the same, and by sharing our experiences and taking the engagement to work together and show that we are willing, Africa will see a new day."

Information about the Church World Service's Interfaith Summit on Africa can be found at: http://www.churchworldservice.org/news/africasummit/index.htm.