NEW YORK CITY -- Peace in their region is the first priority of a nine-member church leaders' delegation from West Africa, which is spending March 6-20 in the United States by invitation of the global humanitarian agency Church World Service.
These top ecumenical officials from the Mano River Union countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea and from neighboring Ghana and The Gambia are meeting with top-level United Nations, U.S. government and U.S. church leaders concerned with West Africa.
"By exposing us to all these stakeholders in our affairs," said Mr. Baffour D. Amoa, a Ghanaian delegate who is Secretary General of the Fellowship of Churches and Councils in West Africa (FECCIWA), "we hope to attract the necessary support for the cessation of hostilities in our region, including what's happening in Ivory Coast."
Commented Mr. Amoa, "Governments have gone it alone for too long. Non-governmental organizations and churches need to be in partnership" toward resolving the region's problems.
Until 1989, West Africans felt immune to the strife that plagued other parts of Africa, when civil war erupted in Liberia; soon afterwards, in next-door Sierra Leone, and, most recently, in Ivory Coast. Millions of people have been displaced within and across borders, stressing neighboring countries including Guinea and The Gambia. Local infrastructure has collapsed in much of the region, which also has seen some of the worst human rights atrocities in recent history.
"Our children, who make up nearly half of our populations, have known nothing but war," said Anglican Bishop S. Tilewa Johnson, a delegation member, who chairs the Gambian Christian Council.
West Africa won't have lasting peace unless the ongoing crisis in Liberia is resolved, he said. "When you put out a fire, to get it to stay out, you have to put it out at its source. In our region, the fire started in Liberia and spread," Bishop Johnson said.
Sierra Leone -- whose 11-year civil war ended in January 2002 -- won't have lasting peace, he said, "if Liberia is not resolved."
Another delegate, Mr. Prince Porte, a member of the Liberian Council of Churches' Executive Committee and Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Liberia, agreed. He said international non-governmental organizations "put the cart before the horse" when they sponsor refugee assistance and development projects in West Africa without addressing the prior question -- the need for peace.
"We want to stop the war," Mr. Porte said. "If we don't stop the war, we will always have refugees. To have sustainable development, you have to stop the fighting and sustain the peace."
Mr. Amoa further elaborated on the need for peace. "Make an investment in an environment of instability gets you nowhere," he said. "Most gains have been wiped away, and we look on helplessly as our infrastructure deteriorates. Let us have peace. Then we can talk about development."
A particular concern in the region is the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, delegation members said. Bishop Johnson commented, "Here in the United States everyone is talking about weapons of mass destruction. Let's talk about small arms. Even in this country people are shooting each other with small arms."
He also pointed to the problem of national budgets going for debt servicing and military expenditures rather than social spending."
Delegation visit is part of CWS focus on Africa
The Mano River sub-region is a geographic cornerstone of Church World Service's blossoming "Africa Initiative" to forge a coalition among churches, businesses, governments and the United Nations to address critical issues in Africa. A Church World Service delegation visited Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and The Gambia in July 2002, and in September, CWS brought leaders of 31 African national ecumenical councils to Nairobi, Kenya, for joint program planning.
This return visit of West African church leaders began with most delegates' arrivals on March 6 and meetings at the Church World Service offices in New York City on March 7 for orientation and to set their priorities for the visit.
On Saturday, delegates addressed a forum at St. James' Episcopal Church in New York City, and were hosted at a reception at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church. On Sunday, most spoke in local churches and then joined the third annual Manhattan CROP WALK to raise funds to fight hunger in the United States and around the world
And on Monday and Tuesday, they met with officials of the United Nations, non-governmental organizations and the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church before going on to Washington, D.C., where they have meetings scheduled with the National Security Council Department of African Affairs; the Committee on International Relations/Subcommittee on Africa; the Congressional Black Caucus; the West Africa Working Group, Library of Congress Research Unit; and with congressional members including Thomas G. Tancredo, Frank Wolf, Barbara Lee, and Chuck Hagel. Delegates will also visit Gambian and Guinean embassies in Washington.
Bishop Johnson offered his "high commendation" to Church World Service for the itineration, "especially at a time when there is a crisis with Iraq and North Korea and fire again in Gaza."
Affirmed the Rev. John L. McCullough, CWS Executive Director, welcoming the delegation, "You come here at a very important moment ... because of events that will shape how we understand each other as a community of nations around the world.
"It's a particularly volatile time," he said. "I look forward to our engagement with leaders of the United Nations, the U.S. government and the churches on what is the quality of world we want and how will we support each other."
West Africa's churches are working for peace
Churches across West Africa are rising to the challenges of their region -- bringing parties to peace talks to demobilize and reintegrate ex-combatants (including child soldiers), advocating for reconciliation, human rights, and grassroots empowerment in dialogue with the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). Working in partnership with West African religious leaders, Church World Service is promoting greater international attention and support for the region.
Anglican Bishop Albert David Gomez of Guinea, President of the Christian Council of Guinea, said that at one time, Guinea's eight million citizens were hosting one million refugees. Now the official tally is 300,000, but that counts only refugees in camps. Many refugees live alongside the local population. Furthermore, many Guineans have been displaced especially from the Guinea-Liberia border area.
"Our churches are trying to do their best to bring back peace, give refugees a better quality of life, fight against the circulation and proliferation of small arms, and provide work for youth and women so they can live in dignity," Bishop Gomez said. "We can't do everything ourselves. We are working with interreligious councils in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and now with a forum of religions in Ivory Coast."
Bishop Gomez from Guinea described the "shuttle diplomacy" that churches -- along with their Muslim counterparts -- are conducting between government and opposition leaders; among the presidents of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea; with U.N. institutions, and between Muslims and Christians. "So everybody can realize peace is something that's the result of the effort of everybody," he said.
Continued Mrs. Madeleine Oulare Koundouno, "In Guinea, 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty level. The Christian Women's Union of Guinea, which brings together Protestants, Anglicans and Roman Catholics, seeks to help women set up income-generating projects.
The union also collects clothing and other goods for refugees, visits prisoners with food and prayers between Christmas and New Year, and takes special responsibility for the maintenance of cemeteries -- where, she noted, Christians and Muslims are buried side by side.
Mrs. Victoria R. Bangura, a member of the Executive Committee of the Council of Churches in Sierra Leone, said that for her country to move forward, people -- especially women -- must be empowered. "An empty bag cannot stand," she said. "Christians, please help us eliminate poverty in Sierra Leone. We have good land. If we have the means to cultivate it, our youth will be occupied. Help us eradicate HIV/AIDS. Help us with education."
Mr. Amoa described FECCIWA's work -- in partnership with its members in 12 out of the 15 countries in the Economic Community of West Africa -- to address the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, HIV/AIDS, disability, peace and corruption.
FECCIWA and the national ecumenical councils in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone actively promote Christian-Muslim interreligious approaches to peace making and peace building, he said.
"Under its good governance program, FECCIWA with the support of Church World Service has started to motivate its membership to critically engage the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) process," he said. Toward that end, FECCIWA organized a workshop on NEPAD in Accra, Ghana, Feb. 17-21 that drew participants from nine West African countries.
A particular word that churches are bringing is the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation in peacemaking efforts.
"Unless you can help people forgive, it won't work, it won't last," said Father Peter Gomez, Executive Member, The Gambia Christian Council, and head of the Roman Catholic Mission of The Gambia. Agreed Mr. Amoa, victims' pain needs to be healed to prevent bitterness and revenge that continues for generations.
Perpetrators of wartime atrocities also need healing, Father Gomez said. "Their pain is deep and causes separation and increasing difficulty of reconciliation."
West Africa Delegation members include:
Mr. Baffour D. Amoa, Secretary General, Fellowship of Churches and Councils in West Africa (FECCIWA), and an associate with the Center for Management and Institutional Development, Ghana
Mrs. Victoria R. Bangura, Member, Council of Churches in Sierra Leone's Executive Committee, and spokesperson on involvement of women in Mano River peace efforts
Mrs. Comfort Freeman, President, Women's Initiative for Peace, and head of the Lutheran Church Committee for Peace and Reconciliation, and Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Coordinator, Office of Displaced People.
Rt. Reverend Albert David Gomez, President, Christian Council of Guinea, Bishop of the Anglican Dioceses of Guinea, and Chairperson, Interreligious Council of Guinea
Fr. Peter Gomez, Executive Member, The Gambia Christian Council, and head of the Roman Catholic Mission of The Gambia
Anglican Bishop Rev. Dr. S. Tilewa Johnson, Chairperson, The Gambia Christian Council
Mr. Alimamy Koroma, General Secretary, Council of Churches in Sierra Leone (CCSL) and Chairman, Inter-religious Council of Sierra Leone
Mrs. Madeleine Oularé Koundouno, Chairwoman, Catholic Women's Fellowship, and member, Christian Council of Guinea
Mr. Prince Porte, Moderator, Presbyterian Church of Liberia, member, Executive Committee, Liberian Council of Churches. Mr. Porte currently serves as Assistant Minister for International Cooperation and Economic Affairs for the Government of Liberia.
Carol Fouke/New York
Jan Dragin/New York & Boston