Voice of the Voiceless

15 Feb

A Leader: staying with his people
Before he could even take on his duties and responsibilities, this new leader in Africa stepped on to the scene calling global leaders in influential positions to use their moral authority to speak up and help make a difference in people’s lives in his country and in Africa. Well aware of the fact that his country, Ethiopia, might not be the focus of attention in the media or indeed in technology, he yet wanted leaders and people across the world to know that his country was facing pressing issues that needed to be addressed urgently. This lone African voice, speaking from his established Ethiopian seat of ministry and service, was pleading with organizations worldwide to step in with support and resources before the forces of exploitation and domination got in and made the lives of people in Ethiopia and in Africa difficult, dangerous and desperate.

The 66-year-old Ethiopian leader, the new Cardinal of Addis Ababa, Berhaneyesus Souraphiel, wasted no time in assessing the situation and announcing his plans. Ethiopia’s leading Catholic prelate hopes his own story of standing by and serving his people in one of Africa’s poorest countries will inspire young people to do the same. About two-thirds of the population have not had the benefits of education and, while the country is now considered politically and economically stable, it has gone through lengthy periods of drought, famine, war and exploitation.

Born into ‘a family of Catholics for generations’ in the village in Tchela Claka, near Harar in eastern Ethiopia, the Cardinal spoke of his family and of the fact that all but one of his seven siblings live in Ethiopia. He admitted this sad reality that Ethiopia is losing its valuable talent and assets. ‘While Ethiopians are easily tempted to leave their homeland to live and work in developed countries, the need for educated people here is great,’ the Cardinal Archbishop of Addis Ababa said in a January telephone interview with ‘Catholic magazine’ of America.

A Leader: in an emerging nation
As Cardinal in one of the most recognized cities in the world which is also the capital of one of the important countries of Africa, the Archbishop of Addis Ababa takes on a unique role of pastor and leader. Almost without his realizing it he would seem to have taken on the unenviable responsibility of having to define the place of the Church in a broader Africa, the position of African people asserting their rightful place among the nations of the world and the take of history on the emergence of Ethiopia today as a flag-bearer of genuine African values.

Ethiopia, with a population of approximately 90 million people is the most populous landlocked country in the world as well as the second-most populated nation in Africa. Located in the far north-eastern corner of Africa, in what is known as the Horn of Africa, it is bordered by five countries: Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Kenya. The source of the River Nile in the north would seem to augur blessing and prosperity flowing through large parts of the country today though it has not helped keep off the effects of famines and drought in the past.

The country also stands out anthropologically, offering the oldest evidence for modern humans, Homo Sapiens. The country’s roots can in fact be traced back to the 2nd millenium B.C. For most of its history it was a monarchy that helped develop a unified civilization in the region. In the 19th century ‘scramble for Africa’ Ethiopia came out unscathed because of its organized military resistance. It was also successful in resisting colonial powers and was the first independent African member of the 20th century League of Nations first and then later was one of the founding members of the UN in 1974.

Unfortunately with political instability creeping in, military powers and vested interests, including interference by the USSR, left this country of well-meaning and peace-loving people exposed to exploitation and uncertainty. In spite of challenging and changing times Ethiopia today is still the largest economy in northern Africa and is the centre for many African organizations, including the OAU (organization for African Unity), the Pan African Chamber of Commerce, African Aviation Union and the African Standby Force.

The country is a land of many firsts: coffee beans were first grown here; it has Africa’s largest continuous mountain range; it has the most number of World Heritage sites; its ancient alphabet, the ‘Ge’ez’ script is perhaps the oldest in the world; it has its own unique Ethiopian Calendar that is used alongside the Gregorian Calendar°. The country is a multi-lingual society with around 80 different ethnic groups. The population is largely Christian with a third being Muslim, and the Jews being a large group. Ethiopia is believed to be the first nation to have become Christian, as early as the 3rd Century A.D. ACTS° records the first Ethiopian becoming Christian, while history records the groups of Christians fleeing from the persecution during Diocletian’s° reign taking refuge and then setting up communities in Ethiopia.

The Cardinal clearly has his work cut out: leading a vibrant church in a country that stands out in history and in reality, guiding mainly a bulk of his country’s population through developing and challenging times. There’s no doubt that he takes on a role that is as daunting as it is exciting: enabling Ethiopia to use its historical richness to be the template for future greatness. Fortunately he has broad shoulders: his education, his background and his pastoral experience will serve him in good stead as he steers his ship through calm and troubled waters.

A Leader: leading the Church
‘As a Church,’ the Cardinal said, ‘we need to work to change the situation in Ethiopia, that of poverty and injustice, so that young people have more opportunities.

The Church in Ethiopia (and in Addis Ababa, its capital) was first established in 1839 as the Apostolic Prefecture of Abyssinia, taken off the Apostolic Vicariate of Syria, Egypt, Arabia and Cyprus. Gradually over the years, from 1846 right until 1960 the Church developed, grew and took on more governance and independence. Finally in 1961 it was named the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Addis Ababa, with three ‘suffragan’° dioceses. Archbishop Souraphiel took over as Archbishop in 1999. Pope Francis, who is always full of surprises, appointed him and 19 others from different parts of the world as Cardinals, in February 2015. The Pope’s appointee choices ranged from Myanmar to Mexico, Portugal to Panama, Vietnam to Uruguay, France to New Zealand, Italy to Tonga, Spain to Cape Verde, and of course from Thailand to Ethiopia.

Cardinal Souraphiel is President of the Catholic bishops’ conference of Ethiopia and Eritrea. In July 2014 he was also elected chairman of AMECEA (Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa) based in Nairobi, Kenya. After studying theology at King’s College in London, he returned to Ethiopia and was ordained a priest in 1976 as a member of the Congregation of the Mission who are also known as Vincentians or Lazarists.

A Leader: surviving under oppression
He worked as a pastor in the south-western part of the country and was imprisoned in Jimma for seven months during a crackdown on religious leaders by the communist military regime. Mengistu Haile Mariam’s junta committed many atrocities on thousands of its opponents, imprisoned people on religious grounds and confiscated property. After his release from prison, Souraphiel studied social sciences at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome before returning to Ethiopia. He became Provincial Superior of the Lazarists in Addis Ababa and, after the junta was overthrown in 1991 and Ethiopians were free to practise religion, he taught at the seminary there. In 1994, he was appointed prefect of the Apostolic Vicariate of Jimma-Bonga, in western Ethiopia.

‘It was good to be back in Jimma, when things had changed and we were able to practise our faith in freedom,’ Cardinal Souraphiel said after he had suffered years of repression and imprisonment. In 1997, he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Addis Ababa and was named Archbishop two years later.

A Leader: leading his suffering people
‘The oppression of Christian churches and other religious groups under the communist military regime brought us together, as did our joint efforts in the years of drought and famine,’ he said.
‘The fruits of collaboration,’ he summed up, ‘have resulted in a strong national interfaith forum of religious leaders.’

On a 2013 visit to the United States, Cardinal Souraphiel told Catholic News Service, ‘Education is the key for development and peace. The Ethiopian church leaders hope that education can help fight some cultural traditions, such as female circumcision and beliefs that epileptic children are possessed.’

In 2009, Ethiopian religious leaders, including Cardinal Souraphiel, wrote to U.S. President Barack Obama ahead of the 2009 international climate talks in Denmark, urging him to adopt a strong ‘position and to give a full pledge on a sound climate change policy.’ They called such a stance a ‘moral and ethical imperative to ensure a preserved environment.’

A Leader: urging others to speak for his people
Souraphiel is one of 20 new Cardinals created by Pope Francis to help build a more vibrant Church in Christian centres across the world. Francis has used his own natural love for people and their lives to urge the Church to awaken to its Christian obligations of service and dedication. He believes in this vision of a Church well established and developing locally. He is moving towards a more inclusive Church also when it comes to it leading prelates, the Cardinals. He would want them to be more than just symbols of authority to be the ones who eventually are responsible for governing their areas and not be just the electors of his successor. The voices of Africa and Asia will also now be significantly more, in number of Cardinal-electors, up from approximately 9% (when Francis was elected) to around 12% now.

Souraphiel is Ethiopia’s second Cardinal. He took over from Cardinal Paulos Tzadua°, who resigned in 1998 after guiding the Church steadily and wisely, through some difficult times, for over 19 years. Souraphiel takes over a Church building on a past of suffering and a present of uncertain times. Without sounding prophetic he would want institutions like the Vatican, and the Pope, to focus their energies towards speaking up on behalf of suffering people around the world, wanting them to be ‘the voice of the voiceless’ who are not in a position to speak out. He was speaking specifically about people in East Africa who are being displaced from their homes in efforts to mine natural resources. The Cardinal emphasized this in strong words: ‘These people need to be heard.’

‘The Vatican is a big voice in the world,’ said Souraphiel. ‘It is also not just a voice. It is also a moral voice. It has to be the voice of the people in Africa. The Vatican could help us with that: To be the voice of the voiceless.’ Cardinal Souraphiel, who is head of Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa Archdiocese and the country’s Conference of Bishops, was speaking in an exclusive interview with NCR at the Collegio Etiopico, the historic seminary for Ethiopian priests that was founded in the 15th Century, located next to the Vatican gardens in Rome.

[by T.D’Souza- who has done six years of project work in East Africa]
(Facts from ‘Catholic’ USA, NCR, Wikipedia & internet sources: 15.02.15)

Notes:
-Acts: the Acts of the Apostles. The reference is to Chapter 8: vs 26 to 40
-Cardinal Paulos Tzadua: (1921 – 2003): head of Ethiopian Catholic Church from 1977 to 1998.
-Diocletian: Roman Emperor – who ruled from 284 to 305 A.D.
-Gregorian Calendar: the calendar the world uses today, started by Pope Gregory XIII in February 1582.
-Suffragan: A Bishop subordinate to a Metropolitan Arch-Bishop.

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