ROME, FEB. 21, 2011 (Zenit.org).- The Acts of the Apostles recounts that one of the first converts to Christianity was Ethiopian. Already in the fourth century Ethiopia declared the Catholic faith an official religion — one of the first countries to do so. Today, however, Catholics are less than 1% of the total population. Despite their small numbers, they are managing as much as 90% of the nation’s social programs.
In this interview with Bishop Rodrigo Mejía Saldarriaga, apostolic vicar of Soddo-Hosanna, the prelate explains the Church’s service work to the television program “Where God Weeps” of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.
Q: You were born, raised and ordained in Colombia. How do you find yourself in Ethiopia?
Bishop Mejía: I arrived first in Africa in 1963, not to Ethiopia, but to the Congo, the ex-Belgian Congo at that time, where I worked for around 20 years. Then I moved to Kenya where I worked as a missionary for 14 years, and now I’ve been in Ethiopia for more than 10 years.
Q: What was the most difficult thing to adapt to upon your arrival in Africa?
Bishop Mejía: I would say the greatest challenge was to adapt to two mentalities at the same time: the African mentalities on one hand and the European mentalities of the missionaries on the other hand, because I was practically the lone Latin American, and therefore I had to work with the Europeans for the Africans.
Q: How would you describe the African mentality?
Bishop Mejía: The African is open, cheerful and direct in communication; you know very easily what the Africans think. The Europeans, however, are more reserved and also more head-oriented, rather than heart-oriented.
Q: Having spent time in so many different countries around the world, what is unique to the Ethiopian faith?
Bishop Mejía: Ethiopian Christianity is very marked by the Jewish tradition because there was a Jewish presence in Ethiopia before Christianity. And still today, there are traditions and customs that are from the Old Testament. For example, they don’t eat pork and they fast twice a week.
Q: What is the religious landscape within Ethiopia today?
Bishop Mejía: Ethiopia is the oldest Christian, and most Christian country, in Africa. It is around 45% Orthodox, 4%-5% Protestant; around 30% are Muslim and the remainder are traditional African religions. This is roughly the religious composition of the country.
Q: Although Catholics number less than 1% of the population, the Catholic Church runs more than 90% of the social programs in Ethiopia. How did this come about?
Bishop Mejía: I think this follows the general orientation of the Catholic Church in the missions — that we are not just going to evangelize souls as in the past, but people. Ethiopia is a very poor country with a lot of social needs: needs for education and needs for health.
Q: What kind of poverty are we talking about? What is the average wage?
Bishop Mejía: According to the studies of the U.N. Human Development Index, Ethiopia is the fourth poorest country in the world with a lack of education, lack of food, and a lack of employment. It also has more than 70 million people presently, which makes Ethiopia the second most populated country in Africa, after Nigeria.
Q: But agriculturally it’s not a poor country: It has wealth, it has minerals. Why is it not able to develop?
Bishop Mejía: The land is good you are right, but the way agriculture is managed is very, very traditional. It’s a kind of subsistence agriculture. Ethiopia is the most mountainous country in Africa and therefore they depend greatly on rainwater. When there is a drought, this is a drama for the farmer.
Q: What kind of programs has the Church implemented?
Bishop Mejía: The Catholic Church is recognized for its educational institutions from kindergarten to secondary school, and more recently, there is a big project to start a Catholic university in the capital, and maybe in the other cities later with different campuses. The Catholic Church is known for its commitment to education because we are convinced that education is the first step out of poverty.
Q: Christians make up 45% of the total population, but there is a great Muslim population. How do the Muslims feel about this work, and the strong presence of the Church, particularly in these kinds of programs?
Bishop Mejía: Historically, Ethiopia has always been considered — even from the beginning of Islam — a Christian country in Africa, and they have accepted that. During the persecution against Muslims, even during the time of Mohammed, Ethiopia welcomed Muslims as refugees, and from that day the Muslims promised that they would respect Ethiopia. This is a tradition, an oral tradition, that holds up to now.
Q: Are Christians and Muslims working together also for the good of the country in this way?
Bishop Mejía: Generally yes. The Muslims are not aggressive and are respectful. And our social institutions are open to all: to Orthodox, to Muslims, and to Africans from various religions.
Q: In the schools for example, what percentage would be Muslim students?
Bishop Mejía: I don’t have exact statistics. With small children, the Muslims have started their own Quran schools of course. In our secondary schools, I would say maybe 10%-15% are Muslims.
Q: Do you see this reflected later on in the political landscape? Specifically, that Muslims, having gone through a Catholic education, would be more open to Christianity, not necessarily converting, but certainly more open to working together with the Christians?
Bishop Mejía: This is a very interesting question because even if we have Catholic institutions, we are not using our institutions for Catholic education as such — at least explicitly — we are not even teaching religion in our Catholic schools.
Q: You are not allowed?
Bishop Mejía: No, we are teaching religion to the Catholics in our schools outside the academic periods, and curriculum, but we have to follow the same program as proscribed in the country.
Q: You are bishop of the Diocese of Soddo-Hosanna. What would you say is your biggest challenge as a shepherd of this diocese?
Bishop Mejía: Well, the most immediate challenge has been the drought. After I was appointed we had five months without rain. The land is good but these people live always at the level of subsistence and poverty. When there is a drought like this they are forced to eat their seeds, so at the moment there is nothing to eat. That is real poverty and this drought was one of the first challenges I had to face.
Q: How is the Church working in this area? Is it working with food relief?
Bishop Mejía: First of all we have to work with the local government and to be in agreement with them — asking them for official authorization to bring in food and to distribute food. Then we count on the generosity of people abroad so that we may bring in food, or receive money to buy the food locally, because sometimes the drought is very localized and there is food in the other parts of the country, so we don’t have to import food from the outside.
Q: What would be your appeal to the Catholics around the world, as the shepherd of this diocese, and for Ethiopia?
Bishop Mejía: The most obvious appeal is to be sensitive and to get to know Ethiopia much better, because it seems that Ethiopia appears on TV and radio only when there are problems: When there is famine or when there are wars and conflicts, which is risky because it tends to give a negative image of Ethiopia. However, Ethiopia is a fantastic country. It offers a variety of cultures. It is even a very beautiful country where there are many things to contemplate and to admire.
Then for the Christians, solidarity is the key word, solidarity with the Ethiopians in their suffering, in their poverty because we feel that af
ter the Cold War and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Europe is more oriented toward Eastern Europe. These are the new markets for investments, and we feel that Africa in general and Ethiopia is forgotten.
Q: What, on a pastoral level, are your practical day to day needs?
Bishop Mejía: In our vicariate, we have 34 kindergartens belonging to the Catholic Church. These kindergartens cannot count on the school fees that the children or the families can pay. And on top of the education, we give them a small portion of food every day at mid-morning.
Q: This is the only meal they receive?
Bishop Mejía: Practically, yes. If we don’t give this meal, the teachers see that the children fall asleep and they are very hungry. So this is a very great service and the parents send the children to these kindergartens not so much for education but for food. However, we need support to maintain these institutions and sometimes our donors say, “We will help you to start but we won’t help for the running expenses.” It seems very logical that an institution should be self-sufficient, but in our context it’s very, very difficult, even if we are trying to make the people more conscious of the need for their local contribution, and they do as much as they can, but still we find this challenging.
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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps,” a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
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Where God Weeps: www.WhereGodWeeps.org
Aid to the Church in Need: www.acn-intl.org