By Luca Marcolivio
ROME, OCT. 28, 2011 (Zenit.org).- A continent rich in natural resources that continues to sink into misery. This is the paradox of Africa, whose possibilities, however, are not limited to the material.
For more than five centuries the African continent has been a land of evangelization, with the civil coexistence of many different religions — among which are Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, and animism — posing a continual challenge.
One witness of apostolic experience in sub-Saharan Africa is the Comboni Missionary Bishop Michele Russo, 66, who has worked in Chad for 35 years and has been bishop of Doba for 22. ZENIT spoke with him during a recent visit to Rome.
ZENIT: Your Excellency, according to the numbers, what is the representation of different religions in Chad?
Bishop Russo: According to a 1996 census, Muslims were about 43%: a striking discovery since it had been previously estimated that three quarters of the population belonged to Islam. The Christians, including Catholics and Protestants, were 34%. The rest of the population were adherents to traditional religions. During the war, many people drew near to the Catholic Church, whose missionaries stayed in the country even in the most dramatic circumstances. Unfortunately our Protestant brothers left when the war broke out, many pastors having families, and this caused a lot of disappointment among the people. Personally, I will not allow myself to judge them, but there are some among the people who say: “This is where we separate the shepherd from the mercenary.”
Undoubtedly, the celibacy of Catholic priests and nuns permits greater freedom. The Church of Rome supplied all of the functions of the state, from schools, to health, even mail — until a short time ago to send a package it was necessary to go to Cameroon or the Central African Republic! Many missionaries suffered martyrdom during the time of the war.
Doba is something of the cradle of the Catholic Church in Chad so much so that the Holy Father made it a diocese. And yet, when I came to this city there were only 14 parishes and 11 priests. We stopped to reflect a little, then we understood that it was important to emphasize the role of the laity, in particular for practical questions: All of us priests are white, they are all Africans, so they know the people of the place much better than we.
ZENIT: What is the state of religious liberty in Chad? Is peaceful coexistence between the different religions possible?
Bishop Russo: It is much more difficult to dialogue with the Protestants than it is with the Muslims: there is still a lot of closure and diffidence on the part of the reformed communities, with the usual objections to the saints and Mary. But in the end, in Africa, where there is veneration of ancestors, the cult of saints should easily be welcomed. The saint is, fundamentally, someone who tells us that it is possible to imitate Christ.
Among the Muslims there is more openness: At one of our last meetings with them, 14 imams came and even Muslim women and children. Last year one of our Comboni confreres, originally from Sudan, who was born Muslim and later converted, succeeded in bringing together 10 Protestant pastors, 10 Catholic priests and 10 imams in the great mosque of N’Djamena. The same meeting was repeated during the parade for the president, who is a non-practicing Muslim. Since I have been bishop, dialogue with other faiths has been one of my priorities.
ZENIT: Have vocations flourished?
Bishop Russo: Once there were high numbers of vocations, also because for many the Church was the only point of reference. The discovery of oil, however, has changed the cards, creating the illusion of easy wealth. The result is that corruption, prostitution and alcoholism are rampant. The number of people infected with AIDS has gone from 0.3% to 13%. Some years ago I went to visit the villages near the oil fields: There I found people who were discouraged and demoralized. The end of the war, anyway, had the revival of education as a positive effect. The former dictator was afraid of education, he boycotted it, the teachers were not paid and forced to work in the fields. The south is more educated than the north where for many years there was a refusal to learn French.
ZENIT: What was your personal experience of the war in Chad and the apostolate in general?
Bishop Russo: During a war you cannot run away or ignore what is going on. You’re in it and you have to pay a lot of attention to everything that you have to do or say, you have to be very clear and careful, making sure that you are not misunderstood. Much prudence is necessary but Italians, by nature, are quite diplomatic and know what they should say and not say. My presence in Chad for 35 years has given me a lot of confidence in myself: There was a time when I was very timid; today I am more decisive and if I have to say something, I am not worried. Basically, Our Lord too knew how to be very clear and, at the same time, he always rejected violence. In theory he could have become a political leader against the Roman occupation, but he had a different role.
ZENIT: What can be done concretely for the development and emancipation of the African continent?
Bishop Russo: For many years there has been an intolerable silence about Africa. It is a very rich continent in which almost everyone lives in misery. This is unacceptable and we cannot not talk about it! There are a billion people living in Africa and one sees this contradiction everywhere. In many places suitcases of dollars are needed to buy medicine: Devaluation has reduced local currency to worthless pieces of paper. Even among men of the Church more courage is needed in coming to the aid of people who have been martyred, raped, deprived of their dignity and future. Whoever remains silent is an accomplice in this situation. Today Africa is a manipulated continent but if one day the people awaken, this awakening could be painful. And yet we are still in time to recover history for these people.[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]