Muslim Expansion Threatens Catholicism in Horn of Africa

Nuncio Warns of «Bourgeois Atmosphere» in Religious Institutions

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, NOV. 29, 2002 ( The Church in Ethiopia is living though difficult times. To the danger of famine that hovers over the region, must be added the expansion of Islam. Given the scarcity of missionaries, these are serious challenges.

In an interview published by the Misna agency, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, apostolic nuncio in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, commented on the situation in Ethiopia, which more than ever calls for good formation of indigenous clergy and dialogue with other religions.

«Like the rest of the Horn of Africa, we are experiencing very critical years,» he said. «The impressive expansion of Islam must impel us to go out among the insufficiently evangelized settlements, and to places where Islam has not yet penetrated.»

«All useless delays work against us,» the nuncio added. «The great regions that, beginning with Eritrea, follow the Sudanese border toward the south, are inhabited by peoples who, to a large extent, are animists, but who demonstrate openness to the Catholic Church and aspire to better conditions of life through the development of education and sanitation. It is a challenge that must be accepted, a difficult challenge, especially given the lack of missionaries.»

The nuncio said that the Catholic Church in Ethiopia administers 220 schools, along with 60 clinics, hospitals and health centers.

«Such intense activity, which also requires a considerable investment of means and energy, might make one lose sight of the importance of serious formation for indigenous pastoral agents, the only guarantee of continuity,» he explained.

«However, it is also important to engage today in serious self-criticism,» the archbishop continued. «As a Church, we have created great structures, and have invested and continue to invest considerable financial means. However, in general, a bourgeois atmosphere in religious institutions exists that is far from the people’s conditions of poverty.»

«In contrast, in the Orthodox Church, priests and deacons, living in humility and poverty, offer a more profound and radical witness and spirituality, which is more easily received by people who live at subsistence level,» he continued.

«The whole Catholic Church in the Horn of Africa has before it the challenge of simple survival,» the nuncio said. «Suffice it to look at the statistics: The Catholic Church is a very small minority which, if it wastes the next 10 years … could risk total extinction.»

«If, in fact, the Orthodox Church — rooted and consolidated through the centuries in the extensive plateaus — has been able for 1,500 years to resist the Muslim expansion which tried to sweep it away, the same would not be true of the Catholic Church, in this phase of very strong impetus to Islamic expansionism,» he added.

«On the other hand,» he warned, «if the Orthodox Church, which in recent years has experienced a very grave crisis, were to collapse, the doors would be wide open for Islam’s conquest of the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. This is, in fact, the plan of the Arab countries.

«The signs of such a process are very evident in Ethiopia and in the Horn, especially in the commercial and economic sectors. Those who govern are still convinced that the greatest dangers come from the expansion of cults, but many have had to change their opinion since Sept. 11.»

«In reality,» he said, governments «are very careful not to criticize Muslim expansion, to avoid enmity with the Arab countries, which guarantee massive investments and financial support.»

Archbishop Tomasi concluded by affirming that «we will have to seek more dialogue with the other Churches, especially with the Orthodox, but the government [of Ethiopia] does not regard [this dialogue] favorably, out of fear that a coalition will be formed, with inevitable consequences of a political nature. In fact, although religious liberty is ensured in Article 27 of the Constitution, Islam is the only religion mentioned and able to obtain public financing for its own Shariah courts.»

He added: «The risk of Islam’s growth, to the extent of making it the majority, lies in its imposing a fundamentalist policy in the future that would lead to an open struggle with all that it regards as Western. Because of this, we can no longer discuss questions that are not essential, such as rites, but must unite with all Churches and find common strategies.»

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