Championing Women's Rights in Ethiopia

Interview With Bishop Rodrigo Mejía Saldarriaga

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SODDO, Ethiopia, JUNE 13, 2010 ( The Colombian Jesuit who serves as the apostolic vicar of Soddo, Ethiopia, has taken up the cause of women’s rights as one of his priorities.

Teaching Ethiopians the Gospel truth that men and women are equal in dignity is a challenge that must be met particularly in this country, Bishop Rodrigo Mejía Saldarriaga says.

The apostolic vicar of Soddo was born in Medellin, Colombia, in 1938 and came to Africa for the first time in 1964. After 20 years in the Republic of Congo he spent 14 years in Kenya and has now been in Ethiopia for 12 years. 

In this interview given to the television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, the bishop speaks of the challenges of ecumenism in Ethiopia and why he has made the defense of women’s rights one of his priorities.

Q: Is it difficult to be a bishop of a small community? (Ethiopia is predominantly an Orthodox and Protestant nation with only a very small Catholic presence.)

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: It has advantages and disadvantages I would say. The fact that the community is not very big produces not many concerns regarding administration but, the fact that the community is small poses also great challenges pastorally especially for relations with other churches. 

Q: Can you give examples of these important relationships? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: We are all Christians: Catholics, Orthodox and Protestant churches. The Orthodox Church, being the original church in Ethiopia, creates challenges for us; challenges in entering into dialogue and ecumenical relations with them. 

Q: Is this [dialogue] possible with the Orthodox Church? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: I think it is possible, for sure, especially on a personal level. On a personal level, I would say that we have good relations with the local bishops and priests. It is more difficult on a national level because it implies agreements and policies

Q: Can you give an example of one of your dialogues with the Orthodox Church? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: One of the main dialogues at the highest level is the collaboration of all the religious leaders for peace. During the past war with Eritrea, the religious leaders gathered together and issued a joint statement for peace. They invited everyone to partake in this struggle for peace. 

Q: You have spoken out, in great length, that you are in favor of women’s rights. Why is this necessary? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: It is necessary because it is one of the aspects in the African culture where evangelization is required. Pope Paul VI in his encyclical “Evangelii Nuntiandi” stressed the fact that it is culture that has to be evangelized. It is at this point, I think, that the African culture needs the Gospel to tell them that women have exactly the same human dignity as men and therefore they can not be treated as second class citizens. 

Q: How is the Church going to do this? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: I think one of the most effective methods is through education. If women are educated then they are more appreciated and they are empowered to be able to function as citizens of society. 

Q: Why are you fighting, if I may say so, for women s’ rights? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: Well because and especially since I came to this vicariate in Ethiopia, I realize that, in comparison to the other African countries where I’ve lived, the role of women is undervalued. I’ve had very nice experiences in pastoral work in both Congo and Kenya, with women as catechists, leaders of small Christian communities, and as collaborators. And when I tried to do the same in Ethiopia, in the very beginning, I met with a very great resistance and astonishment from the men and even misconceptions. So I told myself that there is a challenge here and evangelization is required in this sector. 

Q: Do you also have to evangelize the men? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: Well, yes, and the whole society especially the young people; to change their mentality and to show them that we live in this world and we are all equal and by teaching them about human rights and that these rights apply to both. 

Q: How are you able to teach these human rights? Do you have Catholic schools? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: Yes we do. We have 16 primary and three secondary schools in our vicariate. The Catholic Church, all over Ethiopia, is well because of education; the quality and the number of Catholic educational institution. 

Q: What kind of students come to these schools? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: These are open to all. This is the characteristic of Catholic institutions in both education and health. We serve all and not just Catholics. We may be a minority but our institutions are open to all and the government and other churches appreciate it. 

Q: There are still many tribals in your diocese. How important is it to preserve these tribal traditions? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: It is a multi-cultural and rural diocese and located about 400 kilometers (248 miles) south of Addis Ababa and borders Kenya. These traditions are very much alive and it is important to preserve them because there are great values to these traditions. We cannot simply destroy these cultural tribal values without replacing them with something better; this will cause serious damage to people and the new generations to come. 

Q: Can these values be combined with the values of the Catholic Church? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: Many of them yes, especially solidarity, for example, respect for human life, service and family values — unity and cohesiveness of the family, are traditional African values and others such as hospitality towards guests. These are great values. 

Q: Are most of these tribals in your diocese Catholics or Orthodox? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: They belong to various denominations — Orthodox, Protestants and even Muslims. The tribes in the South on the Omo River are more primitive than the others and they have not been evangelized. There are 16 tribes and they practice the African traditional religions. 

Q: And this [is within] your diocese? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: Yes, it is still my diocese and it’s a challenge for us. 

Q: How do you go about it with these tribes? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: We try to be present among them but there is a challenge in terms of personnel — priests, religious, sisters, as well as financial challenges required to build infrastructures to be present there. 

Q: What motto did you choose when you became a bishop? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: I chose Jesus’ new commandment: “Love one another,» and is translated into the Amharic language. I chose this motto because I realized that, especially in the region where I am bishop, there is a lot of tribalism and division, which causes tensions, and I wanted to bring this fundamental message to my vicariate. 

Q: Do you explain your motto when you visit the different parishes? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: Yes I do when I visit the parishes for confirmation, or when I celebrate the Eucharist. I speak to the people and explain to them my goal and program which is simple: Love one another. 

Q: Which language do you use? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: I use Amharic, which I learned in Addis Ababa, and during the time of Emperor Haile Selasse, this was the official language. Now, the situation has changed and Ethiopia is now a federal republic and the different states have developed the local languages, and that is why, in my vicariate, I use at least four different languages. I do not know them all but I still use Amharic because it is still used by the older generation. I however learned how to read the three other local languages in order to celebra
te the Eucharist. 

Q: Do you still feel like a missionary in Ethiopia? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: Yes, technically I’m still considered a missionary in Ethiopia if by missionary you imply someone who comes from another country — the traditional notion of missionary. I see myself, however, as a servant of the local church in Ethiopia. 

Q: Do you feel more African than South American?

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: Well, I would say yes. I’m not very aware of that when I’m in Africa but I become very conscious of that when I go back to Colombia. I feel like a foreigner in my own country. 

Q: What is your hope for the Catholic Church in Ethiopia? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: We cannot predict the future, but my hope is that the Catholic Church will be accepted more; that prejudices against the Catholic Church will be eliminated and that we may enter into a better dialogue with the Orthodox Church. I also hope especially that we will have complete freedom and possibilities for our institutions. The Catholic Church, at the moment, is embarking on a major project to start a Catholic university in the country to be located in Addis Ababa.

Q: What can we contribute to the Ethiopian Catholic Church? 

Bishop Mejía Saldarriaga: First of all, you can do what you are presently doing by this interview to give us a chance to be known by other Catholics all over the world. Let them know that even if the Church is small, it is present there. We also expect from the universal Church moral support and prayers as well as financial assistance, which is always needed. 

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This interview was conducted by Marie-Pauline Meyer for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly television and radio show produced by the Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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