Sierra Leone 20.08.2015
Sierra Leone is a nation that has seen its share of hardship, suffering through both a ten-year civil war ending in 2002 and the recent Ebola crisis. Mons. Henry Aruna , National Director of the Pontifical Mission in Sierra Leone, spoke of this hardship and other concerns on his recent visit to Aid to the Church in Need on 8 June, 2015.
“At this moment, our biggest sorrow is the aftermath of Ebola,” Mons. Henry Aruna said. The Ebola epidemic was declared over in Sierra Leone four months ago and left almost 4,000 people dead, breaking down families and leaving a great number of children orphaned and homeless in its wake. During the epidemic, the Church in Sierra Leone played a crucial part in raising awareness about the disease and promoting healthy habits to counteract the spread, Bishop Aruna remarked. “At first, people didn´t believe the disease was spreading,” The Bishop said. “They thought the doctors were killing people in the hospitals.” The local churches assured citizens that these rumors were false and helped to prevent more individuals from getting sick due to misinformation.
Ebola also made its way across Sierra Leone rapidly due in part to certain religious burial traditions. In Islam, it is a tradition for bodies to be thoroughly washed before being buried, so many insisted on upholding the tradition despite being warned that the dead can still transmit the disease. Both Christians and Muslims alike had issues with the mass burials that took place to dispose of contaminated bodies. In response to this outcry, Bishop Aruna stated that the Church began providing ´safe funeral services` for families of the dead so that they could properly send off loved ones without the risk of contracting the disease themselves. The planning of these funerals required intense work of the local Church, which had to organize convoys and outdoor services for the families at a safe distance from the bodies. “People also had problems with the body bags that were used to dispose of the bodies,” Bishop Aruna said. “That is not the correct way to bury someone, so we provided coffins for the bodies to be buried in.”
According to the Bishop, the Catholic Church has willingly taken on much of the burden of accommodating orphans by building orphanages and continuing to support them with supplies and education. However, the Catholic Church within Sierra Leone is a minority, with 60% of the population being Muslim while the remaining 30% is made up of mix of Christian and indigenous beliefs, and as such their efforts to receive aid from the government have been fruitless thus far. Though they have worked hard to provide for the orphans and create a system of support as the country recovers from the epidemic, Bishop Aruna stated concerns that the Church lacks the funds and resources to tackle an issue of this size, and is in need of aid. “These children are our future,” the Bishop said.
Despite this polarizing spread of radical Islam throughout the Middle East and Africa, relations in Sierra Leone between the Catholic Church and Islam have remained stable. The nation is very religious and has what Bishop Aruna called a “Deep God consciousness. Everyone is either Muslim or Christian.” The fact that the Catholic Church is the minority in Sierra Leone may lead to the assumption that the Church´s interests are squandered to favor the majority, yet the opposite is true. Islam and Christianity coexist together peacefully with conversions between the two being commonplace and widely accepted. Muslim-Christian marriages are also common. “My nephew who lives in the house with me has a Christian mother and a Muslim father,” Bishop Aruna said, providing an example of how the two religions interact within families. “He now wants to convert to Christianity, and his father has given him his blessing.”
However, Bishop Aruna expressed concern that fundamental Islam will make its way into the country and damage the ties the two religions have. Fundamentalism has a solid presence in the North African nation of Mali, and could potentially make its way south through Guinea and subsequently into Sierra Leone through their porous northern land border. Bishop Aruna stated that it is crucial that the Church´s relationship with Islam in the nation stay cordial, and that the Church must provide its full support during this vulnerable time in the nation´s history. Bishop Aruna stated that an interreligious council comprised of Imams and Church leaders has been formed in the interest of upholding their cordial relationship as well as to give both bodies a greater say in the formation of government policy.
According to Bishop Aruna, another great sorrow that the church in Sierra Leone faces is the lack of funds for the formation of vocations; for priests but also for catechists and prayer leaders. The Church in Sierra Leona is poor, and thus does not have a strong presence further across the nation, preventing it from serving as the body of support that local Church leaders wish for it to be. Bishop Aruna told the story of a village in the Southeast where a Catholic died. Because there was no Catholic Church, catechist, or prayer leader in the entire region to provide funeral services, the family had to turn to the local Muslim leaders instead. They eventually converted to Islam, wishing to become a part of the community that had helped them. The Bishop expressed concern that if the Church cannot properly support the people, it could cause the already small Catholic presence to shrink even more. Due to its small size, dealing with the aftermath of Ebola and wounds from the civil war has left the Church spread thin and in need of aid.
Aid to the Church in need provided more as 260.000.-€ in aid to the local Church in Sierra Leone in 2014, for which Bishop Aruna and others are deeply grateful. “We have nothing but gratitude for our benefactors,” the Bishop said. “They helped us when life would have otherwise been extremely difficult. We would like to assure them that they are in our prayers.”