Ivorian Officials Welcome Church Leaders
After a year in which a battle for the presidency took the country to chaos, Côte d’Ivoire officials welcomed a United Methodist delegation for a series of meetings that explored ways in which the church could support rebuilding efforts.
Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, led the delegation on the Nov. 8-11 trip. He emphasized to all, “We came here as The United Methodist Church in solidarity.”
The agenda included talks with government officials and with church members.
In addition to Goodpaster, the delegation included Thomas Kemper, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries; the Rev. Isaac Bodjé, secretary of the Côte d’Ivoire Annual (regional) Conference; the Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey, who heads the United Methodist Committee on Relief; Caroline Njuki, an executive with the Board of Global Ministries, and M. Samuel Koffi, executive assistant to Bishop Benjamin Boni of the Cote d'Ivoire Episcopal Area. Because of illness, Boni was not able to attend any of the meetings.
Visit with Minister of Foreign Affairs
“As we are trying to get out of this post-electoral crisis, your visit to us is a blessing,” Daniel Kablan Duncan, minister of state and of foreign affairs, told the delegation.
Duncan said the situation is improving in Abidjan and other cities where fighting erupted after Laurent Gbagbo, who had ruled the West African country for a decade, refused to concede defeat after a Nov. 28 election. Alassane Ouattara emerged as the internationally recognized victor. When Gbagbo was arrested April 11, the conflict began to ease although divisions remained.
Gbagbo was taken into international custody on Nov. 29 and flown to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, according to the New York Times, where he is accused of crimes against humanity.
Duncan said the three priorities of the government in place since June 1, 2011, are to ensure security and peace, reconcile the children of the country and rebuild the country and its economy.
Goodpaster, responding to Duncan’s presentation, said that the three goals are huge and that the “denomination can be committed and continue to build on this partnership.”
Duncan acknowledged his country faces steep challenges including finding homes for those displaced by fighting. Some 150,000 refugees reside on the nation’s western border with Liberia and 16,000 refugees remain on the eastern border with Ghana.
The Côte d’Ivoire government has established the Committee on Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation to ease tensions. A former prime minister, M. Charles Konan Banny, heads the committee, which has two years to accomplish its tasks.
Rebuilding the country’s economy is difficult, Duncan said. The World Bank’s most recent estimate of economic growth was a negative — minus 5 percent — but Duncan said he has faith that “next year, it will be around 8 to 9 percent. The government’s objective is to have a two-digit figure by 2015.”
In every sector, the needs are huge, Duncan said. He announced a donors’ conference planned for January 2012.
Kemper, Harvey and Njuki talked about what The United Methodist Church has done and is continuing to do in countries facing similar challenges. They emphasized the assistance the United Methodist Committee on Relief is providing Ivorian refugees in Liberia. “You understand that we do not only preach,” said Bodjé, the Cote d’Ivoire conference secretary.
At the end of the meeting, Duncan assigned five of his ambassadors and cabinet members to continue discussions with the delegation.
Visit with Reconciliation Committee
“The church is very committed in healing relations and reconciliation of people. We are here to learn how you engage in this dialogue especially when you have issues of migration,” Kemper told members of the Committee on Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation.
What is expected to be a “participatory process” will include representatives of the nation’s various religions, non-Ivorian representatives and representatives of Ivorians living abroad, said Banny, the committee’s president. The entire population faced the crisis. It must, therefore, participate in the search for the solution, he said.
“This mission is a divine mission,” said Banny, a Christian. He noted that two of his vice presidents, Monsignor Jean-Pierre Kutwa and Sheikh Boikary Fofana, are religious leaders. Banny said an open immigration policy contributed to the political crisis.
“The population grew, but the resources did not increase proportionately,” he said, explaining that the committee has decided to look into this situation “not to close borders but to see how this can be managed for the benefit of all.”
Banny urged the delegation to support the reconciliation process. “If because of reconciliation, we are building schools and needed infrastructures, people will understand that reconciliation is not just words, not just good intentions. We count on you,” he said.
Goodpaster promised to support the efforts of the committee through the United Methodist Church-Côte d’Ivoire and invited Banny to share his vision with the rest of world. “We can learn from you in other places of the world.”
Visit to Ministry of Health and HIV-AIDS
Antoine Amonkou, the director of the cabinet of the Ministry of Health and HIV-AIDS, told the delegation about the government’s vision for health and wholeness, particularly in fighting malaria and HIV-AIDS. Amonkou is a United Methodist member from the Cocody-Jubilee United Methodist Church. He is also the former president of the board of management of the Dabou Methodist Hospital and now a member of that board, and once hosted Harvey during one of her visits.
“It was during one of those visits that I accompanied her to see the former head of state, M. Laurent Gbagbo, to advocate in favor of the distribution of mosquitoes nets in 2008,” he recalled.
Amonkou stressed that the new government’s vision on health can improve what the church is already doing. He asked the delegation to help equip hospitals and clinics with beds and surgery tables and replace ambulances, which were destroyed during the crisis.
Visit to the Higher Council of Imams
The United Methodist delegation also met with the nation’s Muslim leaders.
The discussion around the visit to the Higher Council of Imams confirmed this “being together in our differences,” Kemper said. He shared with the Muslim leaders how The United Methodist Church is reaching out in its Christian faith while respecting other faiths and advocating for religious rights around the world.
“We strongly believe that there is no development without religion,” he said. Harvey also emphasized that International Blue Crescent and Muslim Aid are two UMCOR partners in countries such as Turkey and Pakistan.
Sheikh Fofana Boikary, president of the Higher Council of Imams, praised God and thanked the delegation for putting this meeting on their agenda. “That demonstrates the openness that you extol.”
Boikary stressed the need to work together for the country to prosper. “No religion supports injustice nor corruption; no religion promotes poverty,” Boikary said.
Responding to his concerns, Goodpaster emphasized the Weslyan values of doing good and doing no harm. He said he is certain that the relationship with United Methodists in Cote d’Ivoire will grow stronger.
Farewell to a Colleague
The delegation also met with local United Methodist lay leaders and pastors in an informal gathering.
Whether by coincidence or an act of the Holy Spirit, the visit of the delegation coincided with the funeral services for the Rev. Isaac Agré, an Ivorian pastor and a Board of Global Ministries missionary, who passed away Nov. 3, 2011. He was stationed in Tunisia at the time of his death.
During a service, both Goodpaster and Kemper shared the grief of Agré’s loss with the faithful. Kemper recalled Agré’s work in Tunisia with the marginalized.
A woman in the church who did not know the real reason for the delegation visit was heard to say, “These highest authorities of the denomination travelled this far to attend Rev. Agré’s funerals. This is awesome.”
*Broune is the communicator for the Cote d’Ivoire Annual (regional) Conference.