Ivorian Church Leaders Give Prayer, Aid

Date Posted: 4/3/2011

As fighting intensified in Côte d’Ivoire’s largest city, the United Methodist bishop and other religious leaders met and agreed to continue working together for peace.


Bishop Benjamin Boni met March 31 with Muslim and Celestial Christian (a traditional African religion) leaders and with the Vatican’s representative to Côte d’Ivoire. The four agreed to bring more religious leaders together and make an appeal for peace.


“We have been working together for a long time,” Boni said in an April 1 telephone interview. A primary concern for the group has been ensuring that Côte d’Ivoire’s political crisis doesn’t become a religious one as well.


Gunfire could be heard outside the house where Boni, his wife and some of his staff were staying. He expressed faith in God and hope for his country but also concern about the violence and the impact of an embargo that has blocked medical supplies from reaching Côte d’Ivoire.


“God is wonderful,” he said, “but many, many people have died.”


Church Staff Find Havens


Soldiers supporting the U.N.-recognized president, Alassane Ouattara, have taken control of most of Abidjan, the commercial capital of the country, but fighting continued with loyalists of the sitting president, Laurent Gbagbo. Ouattara emerged as the internationally recognized victor of the country’s presidential election last November, but Gbagbo refused to concede defeat.


The pro-Ouattara Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire took control of most of the West African country this week and seized about 80 percent of Abidjan. Most of the fighting that remained between the Republican Forces and supporters of Gbagbo was concentrated in the Cocody and Plateau districts.


The presidential residence is in Cocody, where The United Methodist Church’s regional offices, radio station and bishop’s residence are also located.


The “The Voice of Hope” radio station continued to broadcast music automatically today. The five-person team that had been barricaded inside the station left late on March 31 as the fighting around Cocody intensified. The team was reported to be safe, as was the station’s director.


The United Methodist pastors in Abidjan were also believed to be safe, though Boni had not heard from all of them.


Though Boni and his group were safe at a private residence, the gunfire outside was so loud at times that it interrupted the interview. An assistant to the bishop said it appeared that soldiers were firing into the air but no fighting was under way. The soldiers may have been chasing looters, said the assistant, who asked not to be named.


The small group with Boni included his wife, N'Gbesso Berthe Boni, and two conference leaders: the Rev. Isaac Bodje, secretary of the conference; and the Rev. Josue Affi, superintendent of the Abidjan North District and pastor of Jubilee United Methodist Church. Their families are scattered but are all right, the assistant said.


Providing Relief


Boni voiced concern about the international embargo on his country, which is preventing medicine from reaching those in need. “In hospitals, many, many people are dying,” he said.


The church’s hospital in nearby Dabou has seen a 15 percent increase in people seeking help, in part because some of Abidjan’s hospitals are not operating. Though people cannot afford care, the hospital is continuing to treat them, the bishop’s assistant said.


The United Methodist Committee on Relief has provided two grants of $20,000 each to the Côte d’Ivoire Conference. One grant is funding relief for displaced people, and the other is being used to feed kindergarten-age children through a program that will last beyond the crisis.


“UMCOR continues to pray for the people of Côte d'Ivoire and for United Methodist Church leaders,” said the Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey, director of the relief agency at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. “UMCOR is prepared to respond at the request of l'Eglise Méthodiste Unie en Côte d' Ivoire.”


Four churches in different parts of the city – Angré, Yopougon, Marcory and Port-Bouet – have been aiding people displaced by the fighting. Since early March, the four churches have helped more than 750 people. The churches have provided food and basic necessities and have helped the people get settled into safer areas, finding homes to host them.


No churches are known to have been damaged by this week’s violence. The church in the Abobo district, where the fighting in Abidjan began, was damaged three weeks ago, and two clergy there were beaten.


The United Methodist schools in the city were closed this week but are expected to reopen next week. However, the church’s girls’ school at Anyama is being used by the pro-Ouattara forces.


Business and marketplaces in Abidjan were closed April 1, and there were no cars on the street. Looting has become a problem in many areas, with bands of people breaking into stores and supermarkets as well as homes in search of food and money. In addition, garbage has piled up on the streets in recent weeks, resulting in a proliferation of mosquitoes – the carriers of malaria.


Hope for the Future


A church representative has been in regular touch with Ouattara’s people and said they know about the church’s ministries and what it is doing to alleviate poverty. One of Ouattara’s cabinet ministers and his newly named ambassador to the United States have visited with church leaders in the Texas Conference as a result of the partnership between the Texas and Côte d’Ivoire conferences, according to the bishop’s assistant.


Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, who leads the Texas Annual (regional) Conference, sent a letter to the Council of Bishops on March 31 regarding the situation in Côte d’Ivoire. She also urged prayer for the country.


“I invite the people of The United Methodist Church to join with the people of the Texas Annual Conference as we pray for our sister conference in Côte d’Ivoire,” Huie said.


“In Jeremiah, God promises the people a future with hope,” she said. “The people of Côte d’Ivoire have endured a long season of poverty and oppression by others, and the Methodist Church has been faithful in its care and compassion for those in need. In this new time of crisis, we pray that they continue to hold fast to God’s promises and that out of the crisis will emerge a new future with hope.”


Boni gave thanks for the support from around the church.


“I would like to express my gratitude to all of our brothers and sisters who are still praying for us, for the country,” he said. “May God express his will on this situation. We are full of hope.”


*Tanton is executive director of content for United Methodist Communications.