After War, Ivorian Church Seeks Healing

Date Posted: 4/12/2011

Promoting reconciliation and ministering to a nation emerging from conflict are priorities for The United Methodist Church in Côte d’Ivoire, now that the battle for the presidency appears over.

“Too much to do, too much to do,” said Bishop Benjamin Boni, describing the work that lies ahead for the church.

Word that Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo had been arrested April 11 seemed to signal an end to the conflict, though analysts noted divisions remain in Côte d’Ivoire. Gbagbo, who had ruled the West African country for a decade, had refused to concede defeat after a Nov. 28 election in which Alassane Ouattara emerged as the internationally recognized victor.

“There is no reaction in terms of opposition now,” Boni said in a telephone interview. The sounds of gunfire and explosions that had become commonplace in Abidjan, the country’s largest city, had stopped. “I can say the situation is calm.”

The news was welcomed by friends and supporters of the Côte d’Ivoire church, who have been watching events and praying.

“With the news this morning that the standoff in Abidjan has ended, I pray that the people of Côte d’Ivoire may soon find peace,” said the Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey, head of the United Methodist Committee on Relief. “UMCOR is standing by in solidarity with the people of Côte d’Ivoire and with the United Methodist annual conference. We are ready to help in whatever way we can.”

Boni was waiting to hear Ouattara address the country April 11. Then the bishop planned to meet with the members of his cabinet who were still in Abidjan. “When the situation becomes calm, we will try to have a meeting to see what we have to do.”

The church will focus on promoting reconciliation and meeting people’s needs, from providing aid to holding funeral services.

Boni said the church will “continue to do what we have always done” by engaging with other religious groups in dialogue, and it will be in contact with political, tribal and possibly military leaders. He prayed that there would be no revenge attacks now that the conflict was over. “Let us pray for the reconciliation of the people,” he said.

Constant bombardment

For Boni and others, the past two weeks have been hard.

“I am very, very, very, very tired,” the bishop said. The United Methodist compound where he lives is close to the presidential residence, which was bombed repeatedly by French and U.N. forces.

Boni said his house trembled under the bombardment, and he had not had much sleep in 12 days. The night of April 6 was “terrible.”

“We were not sure we would be alive, so I got up (the next day) by the grace of God,” he said.

The compound was not hit by bombs, but the front door of his home was broken after he and his family fled. At one point, the U.S. Embassy called Boni to check on his safety after receiving a request from the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

Boni, his wife and children have been staying with two families. The bishop said he is concerned about two younger sisters who were forced to flee their villages into the bush. He also has been unable to reach his mother and another sister, whom he sent to the Yopougon district of Abidjan after the violence started.

For residents of Abidjan, daily life for the past two weeks has centered around staying safe from the battle and venturing out at the right times to find food.

It has been a delicate balance, and being indoors hasn’t been a guarantee of safety. One United Methodist church employee narrowly escaped injury when a stray bullet entered his bedroom and ricocheted off the walls before coming to rest on the bed. Another church worker’s apartment building was struck by a rocket that set two upstairs apartments ablaze.

“This is a residential area, and we don’t know why the building was actually hit,” said Sam Koffi, an assistant to the bishop. The rocket hit his building during a period of heavy fighting April 9.

“It exploded,” he said. “We called the neighbors to come out. We put the women and children (in) a safe place, and all the men in the building started to put out the fire. I opened my apartment so people could come and get water.” No one in his building was hurt.

Food shortage

The No. 1 issue for people has been getting food, which has been expensive and difficult to obtain. A dozen eggs that would normally sell for the equivalent of $5 has been going for about $15.

“To buy bread, you must wake up at 5 o’clock a.m.,” said Hervé Koutouan, a United Methodist and journalist, in a telephone interview on April 10. “There is a long queue to buy food.” He has had to wait three hours in line to get bread, which is baked locally and is rationed.

Koutouan fled with his family from their home in Abobo, the district of Abidjan where the fighting began before spreading to Gbagbo’s base in the Cocody area. Koutouan and his wife, Annie, along with their infant daughter and niece, have been staying with a church worker and friend in the Plateau district. Their other three children have been with relatives in another part of town.

Buying food is complicated by the lack of money in the city, but the banks are expected to reopen soon.

Meanwhile, four United Methodist churches in other parts of the city have been helping people in need during the conflict. Two emergency grants from UMCOR have enabled the Côte d’Ivoire Conference to provide aid to displaced people and to feed kindergarten-age children.

The bishop had been in touch with some of his pastors in recent days but wasn’t sure about all of them. “I hope that all the ministers are alive,” he said.

When the Rev. Isaac Bodje, Côte d’Ivoire Conference secretary, returned to his home to get a bag of rice, he was accosted by two armed men who said they hadn’t eaten in five days. Bodje gave them the rice, and they also took the keys to his car.

Other church leaders were believed to be safe, either at their homes or elsewhere.

Most of the United Methodist churches in Abidjan were closed April 10, although at least one, Vridi Cité United Methodist Church in the south part of town, held Sunday services. Koffi said the city’s United Methodist schools might reopen this week if conditions were deemed safe.

The church’s radio station, The Voice of Hope, has continuously broadcast programmed music, though the staff eventually had to flee to safer areas.

Donations to support UMCOR’s response can be designated for Côte d’Ivoire Crisis, UMCOR Advance #982450, and placed in church offering plates or given online. One hundred percent of the donation will support ministries for the people of Côte d’Ivoire.

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

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