Church responds to Côte d’Ivoire crisis


The leader of The United Methodist Church here has called for people on both sides of the country’s post-election crisis to engage in dialogue.

Bishop Benjamin Boni’s invitation to dialogue came as the West African country struggled in a standoff between two parties over who won the presidency in the Nov. 28 run-off election.

The elections were viewed as a step toward reunifying Côte d’Ivoire, divided since a 2002 civil war, but the political tension after the vote led to protests and at least 296 deaths, according to the United Nations. The United Nations also estimates that at least 100 people have disappeared.

Violence has been alleged on the part of both sides during the political crisis, and international pressure is increasing on sitting president Laurent Gbagbo to step down. Residents began a run on the country’s banks Feb. 16 as the political crisis led to a financial one.

“Each of us should be challenged by the return of peace,” Boni said. “As human beings, we must continue to talk to each other and embrace forgiveness. And God will help us.”

Addressing Suffering

Boni spoke at a Jan. 19 gathering where the church presented aid to representatives from Duekoué, a western town in the buffer zone between the rebel-held north and the government-controlled south. Clashes in the region have led to several deaths and the displacement of several thousand people, according to news reports.

To alleviate suffering in Duekoué, the church gave $5,000 in cash, 1,500 kilograms of rice and a large amount of clothes. The gifts were possible through a $10,000 support grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

Boni presented the aid to Marie-Odette Lorougnon, a member of Parliament and native of the region, during a ceremony at Jubilee United Methodist Church in Cocody, a district of Abidjan.

“Whenever a man’s life is threatened, whenever blood flows, the church has its say,” Boni said. The church should not be like an ambulance that travels the roads only to carry the wounded to the hospital, he said. The church also has the responsibility to ask why so many accidents occur, and to question the state of the road, car and drivers.

The denomination has an estimated 700,000 members in Côte d’Ivoire, including leaders in government and the military.

Disputed Results

Leaders of the African Union formed a panel on Jan. 28 to resolve the standoff between Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara. Kenya Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a leader in the mediation talks, warned that both sides in Côte d’Ivoire were preparing for armed conflict and that a “small spark could ignite a major conflagration,” according to news reports.

After last fall’s election, the United Nations, the African Union and much of the international community recognized opposition candidate Ouattara as the victor, based on U.N.-certified results. Since the election, Ouattara has been living under U.N. protection at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan.

However, Gbagbo, who has led the country since the last presidential election in 2000, contended that he was the victim of voter fraud and an international conspiracy. The country’s Constitutional Court proclaimed Gbagbo the winner and swore him back into office.

Gbagbo ordered the United Nations out of the country, and he has resisted pressure from the international community to turn the presidency over to Ouattara.

The Associated Press reported Feb. 15 that Abidjan’s morgues are filling with the bodies of victims of political violence. A Human Rights Watch official quoted by AP said most of the bodies are those of Muslims from the country’s northern area, a support base for Ouattara. The government has denied committing any abuses, AP reported.

The political crisis has led to a financial crisis as well, with major banks in the country closing in recent days. Residents began a run on the remaining banks, driven by fear of more closures.

Invitation to Prayer

The Côte d’Ivoire Conference of The United Methodist Church said that it organized several days of national fasting and prayer for peace.

The conference itself went through a process of sorting out its message on the crisis, at one point circulating and then rescinding a draft statement that church leaders decided was too political. The conference determined that it needed to focus on reconciliation.

Boni invited both sides to engage in a dialogue in order to resolve the crisis.

“Whether we be from the north, south, center, west or east, we are one people with our brothers and sisters from other countries who have come to live with us,” he said. Some of the political tension in the country has centered around the rights of non-Ivorian-born citizens to participate in government.

In addition, Boni encouraged people to be of good faith and pray for peace because “people have suffered too much over the years.” He led the January gathering in praying for a settlement of the crisis.

Receiving the gifts at the end of the ceremony, Lorougnon voiced appreciation for the church. “We called for support, and The United Methodist Church-Côte d’Ivoire is among the few to respond. Thank you for showing us the love of Christ in action.”

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