In Kenya, seeds of peace between Christians and Muslims are growing

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Father Joseph Alessandro, bishop of Garissa, baptizing some children in the town of Mandera

In Kenya, seeds of peace between Christians and Muslims are growing

Cristian Uguccioni/ lastampa.it

Stories of coexistence between the faithful of the two religions. The memory of the attacks by the al-Shabbab militias, the return to calm, inter-religious dialogue, the works of the Church in the interview with Bishop Joseph Alessandro.

The diocese of Garissa, located in north-east Kenya, on the border with Somalia, covers 145,000 square kilometers (one third of the country). It is inhabited by a million people, 98 per cent of whom profess the Islamic faith. Catholics are about 8,000 (0.8%), mostly from other parts of Kenya: they refer to seven parishes and can count on fifteen priests and four communities of religious. Unfortunately, this region, in recent years, has been hard hit by the Somali militias of al-Shabbab who have carried out numerous attacks. The most serious was in April 2015 when terrorists raided the University of Garissa shooting and taking hostage dozens of people. They let go of the Muslims and struck at the young Christians. The victims were 148: 147 students and a guard.

The bishop of this diocese is Father Joseph Alessandro: 73 year-old Maltese, he belongs to the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor. He first arrived in Kenya in 1989 and was ambushed in 1993: a group of terrorists (the Shifta) stopped him while he was driving his car and, after shooting him, robbed him. Undergoing various operations in England, he spent his convalescence in Malta, where his brethren elected him provincial superior. At the end of his mandate, he asked to return to Kenya, to the area of Garissa, where there were few priests and the bishop, in precarious health conditions, needed help. Appointed coadjutor bishop in 2012, Father Alessandro will lead the diocese from 2015. In this dialogue with Vatican Insider, he talks about the life of the diocese and the quality of relations between Christians and Muslims.

What is the situation in Garissa at the moment?

“Calm and tranquility have returned. After the attack on the university, many Christians had preferred to leave the city and go to their villages of origin or move to the neighboring county and come to Garissa during the day to work. Now they have returned to live in the city, which is safe because the government has strengthened the presence of law enforcement agencies, which continue to guard even the churches. Recently, al-Shabbab’s Somali militias no longer target civilians, but the police on the Somali border. The university has reopened and is attended by a good number of Catholics, whom we follow and for whom we also organize prayer meetings and Eucharistic celebrations. That at the university was a terrible attack that struck Christians in particular, who were targeted at other times in the past. However, these terrorists are not only attacking Christians: in fact in Somalia they are continuing to carry out attacks even where there are no Christians. In Kenya, the main purpose of the al-Shabaab terrorists is to force the government to withdraw the troops sent to Somalia to fight them”.

In the past how were relations between Christians and Muslims in the region?

“They were good. Not so much with the government. Before independence from the British (1963), most of the territory of Garissa belonged to Somalia. Then it became part of Kenya and the Somali tribe - rather closed - was then divided. This has caused many problems: in our territory, the members of this tribe feel like Somalis and often have their relatives across the border. For a time, a group of terrorists, the Shifta, was also active and carried out violent actions (attacks, robberies): however, it was not as radical and violent as al-Shabbab”.

What is the opinion of al-Shabbab of the Muslims residing in the territory of Garissa?

“Here the Muslims - who belong to some tribes, two of which are very open to Christians - are friendly and peaceful. They consider Islam a religion of peace: they do not support terrorists. Some, however, are afraid to openly condemn this group both because they fear retaliation against their relatives in Somalia and because they belong to the same tribe of terrorists and fear being judged traitors. These Muslims suffer and are silent: they are afraid of the attacks, and at the same time, they do not feel like going to the police to file complaints. Recently, however, the army has been able to count on the collaboration of people of the Islamic faith. The Catholic Church is looked upon with sympathy and admiration by Muslims for the many works begun. It has happened more than once that Islamic faithful said to us priests: “It’s a real pity that - as Christians - you have to go to hell, you’re so good!””.

What social works have been promoted in the diocese?

“In addition to pastoral care, we have some clinics, a hospital, a rehabilitation center for disabled children, an orphanage for girls and some primary schools. In addition, five groups for the promotion of women have been set up, as well as a regular distribution of food and necessities for those most in need. Every person is a creature of God, has inviolable dignity, must be loved and respected: this is what we wish to transmit through our works, intended for the whole population. Schools, for example, are attended by Christian and Muslim children. We are convinced that the Catholic educational institution can play a decisive role in building a cohesive and peaceful society. Muslim parents trust us, they esteem us and say they are happy to send their children to our schools: they know that we work with passion for the human formation of the younger generations. We pass on to our students the Gospel values (which are universal), such as love for one’s neighbor, justice, peace and forgiveness. Children assimilate them and, by studying and playing together, they learn to love each other, to live together, not to consider as adversaries those who belong to another tribe or profess a different religion. Let us sow, convinced that the fruits will come”.

What forms does interreligious dialogue take in your diocese?

“We have always promoted interreligious dialogue through various initiatives. A few years ago, the American Bishops’ Conference financed a two-year program that included regular meetings in individual parishes between groups of women, young people, adults and religious authorities. The aim was to get to know each other, to confront each other and to avoid possible conflicts. The young people also organized sports competitions together. Now the funding is over but the groups continue to meet. And the results are very encouraging. For example: recently, in a parish, the interreligious group of women was able to stop a conflict that was about to arise between husbands. Personally, I sometimes have meetings, especially of prayer, with the local imams, some of whom, after the attack on the university, came to the cathedral - sincerely sorry - to offer condolences and apologies for what happened”.

How would you describe the faith of the Catholics of Garissa?

“Clear, firm. The attack on the university took place on Holy Thursday: Friday and Saturday the cathedral remained almost deserted but Easter Sunday was packed. And there were also many children, because baptisms were planned. I remember that foreign journalists who came to the city because of the attack were very surprised to see that crowd of faithful. Now, as I said, calm has returned; Catholics are not afraid to wear the rosary around their necks or wear t-shirts with the image of Jesus and Our Lady. Of course, they are afraid of the attacks, but they continue to go to church; they say: “If we are to die it is better that it happens here, in the house of the Lord”. And so say the young people. We priests support them and encourage them to pray. Prayer is very powerful against evil. I have a lot of confidence in the Holy Spirit, in his intervention: it is He who guides the Church. For security reasons, in the town of Mandera, in the northernmost part of the diocese, no priest is permanently present: the faithful continue to live their life of faith with a firm mind. When I periodically go to meet them, I see the Holy Spirit at work. Christ said that he will be with us every day until the end of time: we always repeat it to our faithful and they have understood it”.

Are there signs that relations between Christians and Muslims will improve?

“I am confident, basically for two reasons. First of all, the government is working hard to improve the infrastructures of the area (roads, water and electricity networks) and to help this region to develop and open up more. It is also working to support young people who want to study and find a job. Education is one of the four pillars of government action. Young people who begin to move to work or to attend Kenyan universities in other areas learn to deal with other tribes, to know different ways of living. And this helps to change the mentality, to overcome those forms of closure that sometimes, in our region, are an obstacle to coexistence. We are close to these young people, we accompany them and support them (even financially) in their studies. Above all, I am confident because I know that God overcomes evil and does not abandon any of His children. We, with His help, do our best to sow the good seed of the Gospel and then leave the future in His hands. Perhaps we do not immediately see the fruits of our commitment, but that’s okay: future generations will see them. We ask our brothers and sisters in the faith of the whole world to support our communities with prayer so that we can continue to proclaim the Gospel with our lives”.

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 17:41
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