Sierra Leone: Is There a Just God?

Interview With Archbishop Edward Tamba Charles of Freetown

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FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, SEPT. 26, 2011 ( Sierra Leone is small country on the western coast of Africa with a population of 5 million and a wealth of natural resources, including diamonds, gold, bauxite and iron ore.

The nation has recently emerged from a decade-long civil war, but it continues to struggle with the challenges of reconciliation and reconstruction.

 The television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN), in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, caught up with Archbishop Edward Tamba Charles of Freetown, and conducted the following interview.

Q: Your Excellency, upon your appointment you faced the daunting task of reconstruction and reconciliation after a decade long civil war which ended in 2002. Where do you begin?

Archbishop Charles: I agree with you that it is a daunting task and in the beginning we didn’t know where to begin. My predecessor had already started and so I continue by way of rehabilitation of the structures, of lives by way of trauma healing and counseling as well as through peace education program in schools.

Q: Can you briefly tell us the root cause of the war?

Archbishop Charles: I will say here, first of all, what it was not. It was not a religious war; rather it was the usual African tribal war. It was greed for power. Some groups wanted to take over power and have access to the wealth of the country; the huge mineral resources we have. Injustice also played into that because some of the people who were treated badly joined one or the other of the fighting groups to avenge what was done to them. For example in some areas entire villages were wiped out. Later on, we were told, that was done by some people who felt that their own party was cheated during the election of chiefs. They thought everybody should lose so they went and burned villages.

Q: The war is uniquely recognized internationally as particularly brutal; the hacking off of legs and arms, but the population is peace loving. Can one say that the devil had his day? How can you explain this spiritually?

Archbishop Charles: This is one of the manifestations of the mystery of evil. Sometimes people who are good, peaceful and loving act in a manner that is difficult to explain and ours was such situation. Young people were forced to go out and commit atrocities against other people — in most cases innocent people. Victims were shot, arms were amputated and pregnant women had their stomachs opened to know the sex of the child. It became a game among the young people because they were drugged by adults. And yet as you say, the majority of the Sierra Leoneans are peace loving. They hate violence in normal circumstances. So it is one of those manifestations of the mystery of evil that is difficult to explain.

Q: Where were you during this war?

Archbishop Charles: I was in Sierra Leone when the war stated in March 1991. And then I had to leave in the following June to come to Rome for my studies. I did five years in Rome. When I returned in September 1996, the war was ongoing, on account of which I couldn’t go to my own region because the rebels captured the area and they were mining the diamonds. I couldn’t go home for a long time. I saw part of the war and I was there until it ended.

Q: Was your family affected?

Archbishop Charles: Oh yes. Our entire village was burned down. My grandmother was killed. In talking about innocent people, she was one of those. She had nothing to do with power, or fighting, and yet she was gunned down. She was killed in her own room. The rest of the family fled to neighboring Guinea and they were in a refugee camp for many years until the war ended in 2002.

Q: How do you not cry out for justice? How do you not risk losing your faith when confronted with such senseless violence and evil? Do you not ask: Where is God?

Archbishop Charles: I agree with you that in such circumstances one is tempted to say: Is there a just God? But my deep faith as a Christian and I should add, as an African, I think that God is not responsible for this. This is one moment where we have to distinguish between the justice of God and the evil deeds of man; in this case it was not God. It was done by human beings. I blame the adults who gave hard drugs to young people to have them go out and commit atrocities so that the adults would get what they were looking for — namely access to power.

Q: The victims and the perpetuators still live in the same society. How do you build reconciliation in this kind of an environment?

Archbishop Charles: Our sense of justice also leaves room for mercy. In fact, when the UN special court was proposed, many Sierra Leoneans felt it was not necessary because it would not bring back the dead, the amputees would not regain their limbs etc. It was felt that what had been done could not be undone and so what were they looking for? OK, those fellows who did it, some of them are with us, but as I’ve said, many of them did it because they were drugged by adults. Some of those adults have been brought before the special court for trial, some are still being tried.

What we are looking for is their re-integration and that we move on. Life must continue. Maybe somebody will say, «Well you Sierra Leoneans have a very strange sense of justice?» So be it, but we want to move on. Some of them are back to their villages. There were traditional processes of reconciliation. They asked for forgiveness and they have been accepted by society. Some of them are being incorporated into the police and the army and they are back to normal life.

Q: Is the Church participating in this reconciliation process?

Archbishop Charles: Yes, to ensure that it does not happen again and so we have peace education programs in our schools.

Q: What does this mean in a practical manner?

Archbishop Charles: Teaching children to relate to each other in a peaceful manner, to respect each other’s rights and if there is a wrong, to be courageous enough to ask for forgiveness. We started it as a pilot program for Catholic schools — primary, junior secondary and senior secondary. Now some of the communities are asking us to extend it to them. We are also running trauma healing programs for those who suffered terrible experiences during the war and who find it difficult to come to terms with this. So they are brought there and they are helped by way of counseling.

Q: Many of these are not necessarily Catholics or Christians? Some of these are also Muslims or other denominations as well?  

Archbishop Charles: Indeed there are people of other religions. We do not have any problems relating to other religions in Sierra Leone. In fact, recently Sierra Leone was nominated as one of the, if not the first, country of religious tolerance. Maybe we should export it to other parts of the world. Yes, we live in peace. We relate to each other well both Muslims and Christian – Muslims are the majority – because many of us are from the same family background. This common cultural background is very helpful.

Q: The Church was also deeply affected: priests were killed, religious were killed. Can you tell us a little about this and how you re-construct after this period?

Archbishop Charles: We lost one priest, Father McAllister — a Holy Ghost Father. We lost a Christian Brother. We lost four sisters of the Missionaries of Charity; sisters of Mother Teresa.  We lost catechists and prayer leaders and thousands of church members.

Q: Was the Church a target or was it just a part the spectrum of random violence?

Archbishop Charles: I would say it was part of the violence; wanton destruction of life and property. The Church was not targeted as such because, as I said earlier, this was not a religious war.

Q: And yet every single church in your archdiocese was destroyed?

Archbishop Charles: Yes, we lost many churches, schools and clinics. Those that were not des
troyed completely were rendered in a manner that made them useless.

Q: Your predecessor, Archbishop Ganda, understood that there were very few financial means and he suggested starting parishes with small businesses on the side: a farm, an ice-cream parlor, anything that could create self-sufficiency. Was it successful?  Are you pursuing this strategy as well?

Archbishop Charles: The idea was fascinating, but not many people warmed to it, especially among the priests who were not used to business or farming, but I think we have to continue because the resources from overseas are drying up. I have gone around the world and I know that this is the way, the future of the Church. We are insisting on self-reliance as a way for the Church in Africa. We have no other option but to promote it.

That said, as I said earlier, not many people warmed to that and so the initiative now is to focus on a few of the parishes where there is enough land to farm. Some priests do this to subsidize whatever minimal subsidies they are receiving from the bishop. In the cities we have initiatives like restaurants, but it is not bringing us much yet. We hope to reorganize it to make sure it is profitable.

Q: To your pastoral priorities: You are confronting a wave of challenges ranging from church reconstruction, to evangelization, to young people. Where do you weigh your priorities?

Archbishop Charles: As you say it is a difficult choice, but I would put a premium on education and also on the support of the priests who are my first collaborators; priests who are in the parishes and future priests, so that we have many more laborers in the Lord’s vineyard. Once you have that, then we begin to look at where to celebrate Mass. You see, in Africa, sometimes we celebrate our Masses beside a big tree, maybe from there we then move to a Church, but only when we can afford to build one.

Q: The young people; do they see hope in the Lord or Christianity, or is there disaffection?

Archbishop Charles: Perhaps there might be one or two young men or women who are really angry about the war and want to turn their back on God, but the majority are very religious. That is the one difference between us and the rest of the world — Europe and America. Our churches are full of young people; actually they constitute the vitality of the Church. Since the war the churches are really full. People are coming back. In fact, in some places where the bishop started it, and I intend to continue, some of the churches have to be extended because they were built with a small congregation in mind. Since the war the numbers have increased and for an ordinary Sunday Mass, people are sitting outside. In some places they have to introduce a second or third Mass to accommodate the congregations.

Q: To what do you attribute this growth of the Church?

Archbishop Charles: It could be the hunger for God, which is very natural for us Africans. Christianity has helped us to build on that. We are a religious people and so we turn to God first when seeking solutions to our problems and so that may well be the reason why young people have gone to the Church after the war.

Also, during the war the Church stood by the people; priests were in displacement camps and myself I spent some time in a displacement camp ministering to people and burying some of the dead. I had a rickety pickup that I used, a kind of funeral van for carrying those who died and praying for them. Some of them were not even Catholics, but it didn’t matter to me. They came to me: «Father we need your help,» and so I did. That built up the credibility of the Church. One diocese even set up a Catholic mission for refugees in Guinea. They sent priests from Sierra Leone to go and minister to our refugee brothers and sisters in Guinea. The Church came out of it, I would say, with a high profile.

Q: The country is rich in mineral resources: Diamonds, gold and bauxite. Has this been a curse or blessing?

Archbishop Charles: A curse! As you know extractors all over the world leave behind so much destruction in terms of environmental damage and poverty, and the mineral resources in Sierra Leone have been no exception. The first diamonds were discovered in the 1930’s in my own region, in the Kono district. Today there is no running water, there is no electricity, poor roads and those there are infested with holes left behind by both the mining companies and the rebels who, during the war, targeted that area because they wanted something they could use with which to buy weapons. They destroyed many villages, deliberately destroying the buildings because they wanted to establish an open mining field from which to be able to extract the diamonds to buy weapons. You know the film «Blood Diamonds?» This attempts to give you a picture of what happened: different groups were selling weapons to both sides — the rebels and the government — in exchange for diamonds.

Q: How do you change this curse to a blessing?

Archbishop Charles: Well, we need good laws, but above all a machinery to ensure that the policies are well implemented. I think that this is where the problem is for the third world. It’s one thing to make a good law, but it is quite another thing implementing it because some multinational companies have ways of manipulating the system to ensure that they get what they want and, in some places if they require it, even to ferment conflicts to ensure that they get access to the mining areas.

Q: That’s a big statement?

Archbishop Charles: It is a big statement, and it is happening in Eastern Congo.

Q: Your Episcopal motto is: Duc in Altum. How do you live your episcopal motto today in Sierra Leone?

Archbishop Charles: First of all I must say it is a statement of trust and confidence. You know the story about Peter. Peter toiled the whole night and caught nothing, and the Lord told him: «Go out there and throw your net into the deep.» Peter initially, in his usual manner, protested, but when he did he caught a huge catch. I thought it would be a good model for me. First of all I had no intention of becoming a bishop and so when I was appointed, you know…

Q: It wasn’t your choice…

Archbishop Charles: No, so I needed something to hold on to and Pope John Paul II used that expression. Many times when I was in Rome and afterward I thought it would be fine for me. So that is why I chose it as my episcopal motto. It requires of me to trust in the Lord. In the final analysis it is the Lord’s work. It is not a question of waiting until I have all the means available to me. I must do the little I can trusting in the Lord. Sometimes I have had experiences that convinced me that was a good choice because some days you are not so sure. You wake up and you are not sure which direction to take but then the Lord presents you an opportunity and you do something useful for the people.

Q: What would you ask of the people around the world?

Archbishop Charles: To ask them to pray for us first of all; secondly I want to assure them of our own prayers. It saddens us in the newly established churches to see that the churches that have contributed and are still contributing to our sustenance are losing the dynamism they used to have. Some of the churches are empty. There are no vocations. Parishes are being closed and it saddens us. So we pray that the faith may not be lost. So that is my hope and prayer for them and perhaps in the future they will be courageous enough to accept missionaries from those churches they have built in Africa, Asia and around the world. That is my message to them.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly TV & radio show produced by Catholic Radio & Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. 

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