INTERVIEW: Head of Ethiopian Catholic Church: Human Rights Crises Merit More Attention at Synod

Cardinal Souraphiel Suggests Migration of Christian Families Who Are Putting Lives on Line Is an Issue Warranting More Focus Than Same-Sex Unions

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As the synod of bishops draws to a close Sunday, Ethiopian Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel says that issues such as same-sex unions are not the main challenge for his nation’s families, but rather the separation of families who are migrating and risking death.

In an exclusive interview with ZENIT, the head of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, who was made Cardinal by Pope Francis in last February’s consistory, explained that despite the challenges Africa’s people are facing, the Church of the continent is offering a great deal to the synod and universal Church.

The archbishop of Addis Abeba, who serves as Chancellor for the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, also speaks about his people’s greatest challenges, and responds to whether the synod is addressing those.

Cardinal Souraphiel also gave ZENIT an inside look about his hopes for Francis’ visit to Africa, Nov. 25-30, especially regarding encouraging young people to realize the they should not fear marriage, but have courage since God’s certainty to bless it.


ZENIT: What is the Church of Africa offering to the Synod and the universal Church?

Cardinal Souraphiel: Well, in this synod, the African Church is very much present. We have what we call the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar. They have had their own studies of this issue, on the family, and have presented their contribution. Also [there are] the regional conferences, one of them would be what would be called AMECEA, that is the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa. I am its chairman, so that also has presented, and also the individual conferences

And the important thing the African Church brings here is the great traditional values Africans have for life. They like life. They stand for life. They encourage all those who stand for life also. So that respect for life they have brought. That’s not just an African value, but is a world value and Christian value which should be kept and transmitted. That is a big message they have brought, and that the family is a very dear unit in the African society, because it’s not just a nucleus, the family, but also the extended family, so that if you are a daughter in a village, you are not just a daughter for your mother and father only, but of the whole village, which will look after you and take care of you. So that aspect of the love the Africans have for the family has been reflected during this Synod.

ZENIT: What would you say is the biggest challenge for the Church in Ethiopia, for its families, and is the Synod concretely addressing this?

Cardinal Souraphiel:  Yes, there are many challenges for the families in Africa, and especially those in Ethiopia. So what are these challenges? Well the challenges which face many families are from poverty. And because of poverty, the youth want to change their situation. They like to see the beautiful things on television of Europe and America. They want to go there. So we have a lot of migrants, young people moving out and going to the Arab world mostly, often young women for domestic work. So we have many of them going there and unfortunately, we are not able to follow them in the Arab world. I mean, to care for them pastorally and so on. … Some of them get abused, some get exploited and the whole issue of human trafficking, which the Holy Father speaks about. And also the death that occurs on the roads, whether it is to South Africa, also Libya, to Europe, through the Mediterranean Sea, or the Gulf Area, you see the sufferings of people. That means also divisions in the family. Sometimes, young couples marry, they see they cannot keep things going,  so the husband goes, or the wife goes, and this is an issue.  So these are the challenges which the families meet in Ethiopia.

ZENIT: And is the Synod addressing these?

Cardinal Souraphiel: Yes, in a way, the synod is addressing these, but more, when the Synod was prepared, there was more influence of let’s say Europe and the United States, and the problems there have come out here, which are not really the issues for the families in Africa and Ethiopia.

ZENIT: So what needs to follow the synod, to better hone in on the issues relevant to African and Ethiopia, in order for the Church, governments, or the world to be able to help?

Cardinal Souraphiel: Well, one thing is [that] the Catholic Church is universal. So the universality of the Catholic Church needs to be respected and taken into account, and at the same time also, see that each conference, in its own area, to study these issues, like issues of divorced and remarried, see it on the local issue, and find out what the causes are, and see if couples will come together again, or, if they are separated, what are the remedies, especially for the children, as I said, because of separation of families because of migration. These are big issues, so they need  to be seen locally. While other issues, for us, like same-sex unions and some of the others, are not issues for us. They are not issues for us.  

ZENIT: So do you think as a possible way to address this would be a gathering or collaboration between the bishops from where people are leaving to where they are going, so, for instance, between those in Ethiopia and other places where they are migrating from to those in the Arab world where they are going?

Cardinal Souraphiel: Yes, I think that would be very good. The idea would be for our conference to speak with conferences where the migrants are going, whether it is in the Gulf area or South Africa or North Africa. And also to follow these people, as I said to you, because most of them are Christians.  You heard probably when the Christian migrants were going to Libya, ISIS slaughtered 30 Ethiopian Christians in the desert. And while we were there is Addis Abeba to console the parents, families, and so on, we feel we need to protect these people from this type of danger.

And now also in Europe, when we see the migrants coming from Syria, searching for Europe, it is heartbreaking because when you see a baby drowned and washed up on the shore, that is when people started acting, so it is a matter of conscience also. We see families with children, and sometimes just the mother alone, walking all these distances, shows there are many deep down human rights [which need more reflection], than some of the so-called issues which were presented sometimes by the European or US conferences.

ZENIT: The Holy father had spoken about decentralizing on Saturday during his discourse. Do you have any reactions to that idea?

Cardinal Souraphiel: Well, that is putting into process what has been started in Vatican II, by establishing national conferences, while respecting the autonomy of each diocese, then that will give cooperation, national cooperation in the conference, and discuss common issues, for forming solutions together and also regional. So that is putting [into place] the [Second Vatican Council’s] decision on ecclesial structures, on Church structures. So what Pope Francis is saying is more work on the local level because the Church is so different in so many parts of the world. So he was reflecting what was being seen in the Synod.

ZENIT: As far as certain pastoral decisions taking place locally, do you believe there are certain ones which should be decided or handled locally, and are there certain ones you think should not be?

Cardinal Souraphiel: Many things are decided locally, if it is possible. But, fortunately, as I said to you, the Catholic Church is a universal Church, so what is, for example, found as a solution in India, could also work in Ethiopia or Colombia. So this collaboration is needed, but that gives also
, more responsibility for the local bishop and for the local conference to do more.

ZENIT: Any final thoughts and prayers? Any expectations for Pope Francis’ visit to Africa?

Cardinal Souraphiel:  Sure, he is coming to Africa, to Kenya, Uganda, and Central African Republic. I will go there to receive him with the other cardinals and bishops. We hope also that he will meet ordinary African families because not all families are problematic. There are also families who faithfully try to live their married life and try to bring up their children, even if there are challenges. They do so with love, and even with more than love: the concern you have for you mom, father, brother, sister, not just love because you are members of the same family, but because you have a respect, love, and a real closeness to the family links. And for the young ones, to encourage young Africans to establish families. It is challenging and difficult, but many families started their families not after having the house and the car and the television, and all the other things. These things come later. What comes first is love. What comes first should be concern for each other, to live for one another, and of course, the love of the Lord will bless it more.

So we hope the Holy Father will bless African families, especially [those of] Central African Republic where they have an ongoing conflict, also in South Sudan, which is also in that area, but he’s not going there, we have a lot of suffering. In Ethiopia alone, we have over 200,000 refugees from South Sudan and, from Somalia, more or less the same number, and also from Eritrea. So Ethiopia is a haven for more than 500,000 refugees. So when they see 30,000 or 40,000 refugees in Europe they think it’s a big number . [smiling].  So this is it. Thank you very much, Deborah.

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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': or

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