Ethiopia, Don Bosco and the peaceful life between Christians and Muslims

Fr. Aristide Marcandalli with a group of children who attend the Salesian school in Gambella

Ethiopia, Don Bosco and the peaceful life between Christians and Muslims

By Cristian Uguccioni/ lastampa.it

Stories of coexistence between the faithful of the two religions. Journey to the Gambella region, where Salesian schools promote respect and acceptance of diversity.

In Ethiopia, the region of Gambella, on the border with South Sudan, is burdened by many problems - poverty, strong ethnic tensions, lack of industry and infrastructure - but not by the relationship between Christians and Muslims. "Here religion is not a reason for division. The cohabitation among the faithful is serene. I will say more: it is natural, in the sense that it is not the object of reflection: it simply happens. And we are very happy about it", Father Aristide Marcandalli says. Salesian, 53, he arrived in Ethiopia 25 years ago. He lived in five missions located in different regions of the country: now he lives in the city of Gambella, capital of the homonymous region: there are 350 thousand inhabitants, 25 thousand of whom are Muslims. Catholics, who have been present for about twenty years, are 25 thousand considering also the communities in the thirteen parishes of the surrounding area. The majority of the population is Protestant and Orthodox. There are also four refugee camps in the region, hosting 400,000 people who fled from war-torn South Sudan.

Ethnicity
There are five main ethnic groups in the Gambella region, all of which are indigenous to the Nile Valley, as well as groups of people from other regions of Ethiopia who belong to native ethnic groups: up until two years ago, there were some violent tensions, caused above all by political or economic reasons (linked to land ownership). "We Salesian missionaries", Father Aristide continues, "are committed both to supporting and encouraging good ties between Christians and Muslims, and to fostering serene relations between different ethnic groups. The school plays an irreplaceable role in this work”.

The schools
In Gambella Father Aristide is parish priest of the cathedral and, together with two fellow brothers, he coordinates the Don Bosco Technical College, a professional institute attended by 150 young people, and another school that welcomes 720 children and young people from 7 to 17 years old. The oratory, which also offers a popular football school, over the years has become a point of reference for over 1,500 young people. "Both the kids and the teachers of the schools are Christian and Muslim and the relations between them are excellent", Father Aristide points out and adds: "The Salesian educational system promotes integration, respect and acceptance of diversity and this contributes to building that peaceful coexistence between different ethnic groups which is a priority in Ethiopia. By studying, playing, playing sports together, children learn to love each other, to respect each other and discover that different ethnic backgrounds are a source of wealth. The entire Ethiopian Catholic Church is committed to this educational effort: specific programmes have also been launched, for example the one called "Justice and Peace" which aims to promote justice and peace among young people".

A halt to trafficking
The Salesians are also involved in the campaign against the trafficking of human beings: in this region the exodus of migrants is not as massive as in other areas of Ethiopia, but the temptation to leave everything and look for work in the West is present among young people, Father Aristide tells us: "We work to stop illegal immigration explaining to young people the dangers they will face during their journey and the difficulties they will encounter once they arrive in Europe. And we try, through education, to offer quality training that allows them to find a job here".

The refugee camps
The arrival of people from South Sudan fleeing violence, poverty and deprivation is impressive in the Gambella region. The Salesians work in the four refugee camps, providing spiritual assistance and training: vocational college teachers give short intensive courses (e.g. carpentry and mechanics) to the refugees to enable them to start small businesses.

Relations in Ethiopia
As far as relations between Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia are concerned, Father Aristide says, living together is peaceful in many areas of the country. Not all of them, however. "In some areas, tensions were recorded at different times. The government is particularly sensitive to this issue and intervenes promptly each time to promote reconciliation. It also acts publicly, through the media, to encourage peaceful coexistence. In addition, at national and local level, the authorities meet regularly with representatives of different religions to tackle together common problems and show the population that cooperation exists and it is possible. If we can therefore say that in some areas of Ethiopia peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims is a not-yet-fully-achieved goal, it is however true that over the last 25 years the situation has gradually improved: Christians and Muslims have worked hard to get to know each other and have learned to meet and work together to address together the problems and challenges that the country faces".

The help of Muslims
Father Aristide, who has several Muslim friends, says he has received help on more than one occasion from people of Islamic faith: "For example, years ago we were called by a small Catholic community to open a mission in an area with a Muslim majority and it was precisely the Muslim authorities - knowing our needs - who offered us the land on which to build the chapel and our structures. I was very impressed with their availability”.

The Muslim Friend
Among Father Aristide Marcandalli‘s Muslim friends there is Nuriye Yesufed: 30 years old, married and father of a child, he works as secretary at the "Don Bosco Technical College" after having taught computer science there. Here, he says, he always felt well, he felt welcomed "like a family member" since he crossed the threshold of the school as an 18-year-old student. "I have never suffered any discrimination: no Muslim here has suffered any. I really like working with the Salesians because I share their mission: the integral education of young people, an education that offers them the indispensable tools to build a good life. The school also carries out this task through projects such as the "Justice and Peace" and "Stop human trafficking" groups, which create culture and succeed in involving an increasing number of Christian and Muslim people. I am convinced that our school, which invests in young people and also in women, who are often overshadowed by society, plays a strategic role in the building of peaceful coexistence: education is the privileged instrument for overcoming narrow visions".

Cooperation
And on the subject of relations between Christians and Muslims in Gambella, Nuriye concludes: "Here a climate of mutual respect and acceptance reigns; we live together without problems and collaborate in different areas: from education to health to human promotion. My personal relationships with Christians are good, friendly. I have several Christian friends, people with whom I grew up. I think that Ethiopia is one of the most tolerant countries on the continent, there are hardly any tensions and clashes for religious reasons. This is something which, as Ethiopian citizens, we are proud of”.

Tue, 06/19/2018 - 15:53
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