Africans preparing for the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa, to be held in October 2009, are emphasizing the need to find concrete ways to address the problems of a continent that has made much progress since the bishops’ last synod in 1994, yet still struggles with issues of poverty, justice and reconciliation. Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to present the synod’s working documents on March 19 in Cameroon. A survey of some of the issues on the agenda reveals the promise and the challenges the synod will face.
Globalization. Poor African countries “have become more entwined with globalization” since 1994, said Peter Henriot, S.J., of the Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection in Zambia. For example, free market programs and policies imposed on Zambia by the World Bank in return for loans “might have made the economy more efficient, but it has no social face,” Henriot said, explaining that the required cuts in government spending have had a detrimental effect on important social programs. “We have lower literacy levels, a higher AIDS rate and other health concerns,” Henriot said, because “curtailed budgets [have] had a negative impact on hospitals and schools.” Henriot also noted that Africa is particularly hard hit by the global economic crisis. “The poor are becoming poorer [because] the price of basic foods in African countries is affected by skyrocketing prices in First World countries,” he said.
Peace and Justice. The political landscape in many African countries has changed greatly since the last synod. Since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which claimed the lives of an estimated 937,000 people, the country has undergone a “gradual democratization,” said Anthony Egan, S.J., of the Jesuit Institute–South Africa, “and its infrastructure has improved dramatically.” Yet “the hostilities and prejudices still run deep” between ethnic Tutsi and Hutu, he said.
In Angola, where a 27-year civil war ended in 2002, the once-strained relations between church and state are good, said the Rev. Belmiro Chissengueti of the Angolan bishops’ conference. “For the first time church and civil society will have a chance to participate in the process” of drafting a new constitution, he said. Yet problems remain. Despite the country’s immense resources, most Angolans live on less than $2 a day, and one in four children dies before the age of five.
Conflicts continue to rage in places like Sudan, where intensifying fighting threatens the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended more than two decades of civil war. There is also the challenge of how Africa is to deal with the accusations of genocide in Sudan’s western region of Darfur.
Reconciliation. The 1994 synod “opened with the tremendous tragedy of Rwanda and ended with the miracle of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as president of South Africa,” said Henriot. Now, says South Africa’s Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, Catholic leaders from many African countries come to South Africa for help with setting up effective justice and peace structures, looking to the example of South Africa’s recovery from apartheid.
For instance, Napier said, he and other Catholic leaders recently traveled to Burundi, which had just emerged from years of civil war, in order to help set up a truth and reconciliation commission like the South African commission that dealt with human rights abuses under apartheid. “We share stories to enable the church in other countries to strengthen our successes and eliminate our pitfalls in their own work.” Interreligious dialogue, especially between Christians and Muslims, a process essential to peace, “has improved enormously,” Napier said.Gold Mining Loses Its Luster
Five years after Central America was dubbed a “top destination for gold mining,” anti-mining movements led by the church have pushed governments in the region to freeze mining permits and to consider laws that levy heftier taxes on miners. Throughout the region there is “open hostility to mining from parts of the population and from the establishment, including the Catholic Church, and governments,” said Thomas Power, an economist at the University of Montana. “There are public protests and ongoing political actions to constrain mining.”
In several cases bishops have criticized mining operations, arguing that they cause extensive environmental and social damage that outweighs the community investment and taxes paid by mining companies. “Mining is [environmentally] dangerous in Central America. The methods that are used to separate gold and silver from the rest of the matter utilize cyanide, which is highly pollutant,” Archbishop José Escobar Alas of San Salvador told the French news agency Agence France-Presse in mid-February.
In late February, Bishop álvaro Ramazzini Imeri of San Marcos, Guatemala, whose diocese is home to that nation’s largest gold mine, led an anti-mining rally and called for a two-year national moratorium on mining licenses, a move that has already curbed investment in mines. “It’s undoubtedly a major deterrent to future investment in the region. We stopped all of our work last July and made it abundantly clear that we’re not moving forward,” said Barbara Henderson, senior vice president of investor relations for Canadian-based Pacific Rim Mining, which has three mining sites in El Salvador. “I can’t imagine it’s not a deterrent for other mining companies as well.”
Gold speculators have long been aware of Central American gold deposits. Because the gold is thinly distributed throughout the soil, sodium cyanide is needed to separate the gold and silver ore from other, less valuable metals, a process that is not environmentally friendly and is very costly. So mining companies largely avoided exploring Central America until the price of gold began to spike. In 2000, the metal traded for about $300 an ounce. This year, it has traded above $950 an ounce and may top $1,000. In response to the rising value of gold, mining companies began to explore the area and governments handed out hundreds of permits. In 2005 the Marlin Mine, one of the largest foreign investments in Guatemala, opened in San Marcos.
Bishop Ramazzini soon began talking openly about the mine’s negative effects, and controversy followed. Local residents, who said they were not informed about the mine before it opened, engaged in protests that at times turned violent. At least two anti-mining activists were killed, and Bishop Ramazzini has received death threats.
Bishops in neighboring countries followed Ramazzini’s anti-mining position. The church’s stance, coupled with protests and an international publicity campaign, gave the issue traction. Now governments that were once openly welcoming mines are reconsidering. The number of licenses for exploration in Guatemala fell from 740 in 2004 to fewer than 250 in 2007, according to the Ministry of Energy and Mines. In Honduras, one mine has shut down, leaving the country with four sites. El Salvador has not seen any new operations open since 2004.Calls for New Colombian Policy
Colombian community leaders urged President Barack Obama on March 5 to reform U.S. policy toward Colombia to help end the destructive trade in illegal drugs and more than 40 years of civil war. Speaking on Capitol Hill, Msgr. Hector Henao Gaviria, head of Caritas Colombia, said Colombia’s civil war has had a “very grave humanitarian impact,” especially on displaced families, adding that there must be a joint and “negotiated solution to the armed conflict.”
Colombia is second only to Sudan in the number of internally displaced people, said several Colombian community leaders who also participated in the discussion. Participants also urged Obama to rework the U.S.-Colombia anti-drug policy to “acknowledge the principle of shared responsibility between producer and consumer countries in facing this scourge.” Colombia is Latin America’s largest producer of coca, the main ingredient of cocaine, which is transported north and consumed in the United States.Coalition Addresses Climate Change
During the Easter season, the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change plans to unveil publicly a “Catholic Climate Covenant,” a new initiative to make U.S. Catholics more aware of what they can do to stem climate change and its effects. The covenant includes “The St. Francis Pledge to Protect Creation and the Poor,” modeled after St. Francis of Assisi, whose “Canticle of the Sun” praised God’s creation in the form of, among other things, earth, water and creatures. The pledge asks Catholics to pray and reflect on the duty to care for God’s creation and protect the poor and vulnerable; to learn about and educate others on the causes and moral dimensions of climate change; and to advocate for Catholic principles and priorities in discussions and decisions about climate change, especially their impact on the poor and vulnerable.Settlement on West Bank Endangered
Ecumenical News International reports that a development housing hundreds of Palestinian Christians in the West Bank is threatened by the construction of a security fence and other facilities by the Israeli government. In 2002, according to the report, Israeli officials issued a demolition order for all the buildings, which are built on property owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. The Israeli government maintained that the land is located in a zone known as Area C, where Israel has complete military and civil control. Although the demolition orders have not been carried out, the residents of the housing project say the threat is growing larger. “We are concerned that any new [Israeli] government will close us in or confiscate our land,” one resident told the news service. “We will be in a cage if they don’t demolish the complex,” he said.News Briefs
Pope Benedict XVI has written a letter to the world’s bishops defending his decision to lift the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops of the Society of St. Pius X and acknowledging that the controversy was “a misadventure that was for me unforeseeable,” according to reports in the Italian media.• The shooting of a policeman in Northern Ireland was denounced by Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore, a Catholic, and his Church of Ireland counterpart, who said there is “no going back” to the days of violence that killed more than 3,500 people over 30 years. • Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia said March 9 that President Obama’s executive order reversing the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research represents “a sad victory of politics over science and ethics.” • A bill proposed in the Connecticut state legislature that would have given laypeople financial control of their parishes in Connecticut was withdrawn by its sponsors on March 10 in the wake of heated controversy. • Peter Bray, F.S.C., assumed his position in March as the eighth vice chancellor of Bethlehem University, which is administered jointly by the Vatican and the Christian Brothers.