Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic state in East Africa; Christianity has been established there for almost 2000 years. At about 43 per cent, the majority of the population is Orthodox Christian, but Islam is on the rise at 34 per cent. The Catholic Church only arrived on the territory of what is today Ethiopia in the 19th century. Its members are only a minority at one per cent of the population. In spite of this, the Church plays a very important role in the educational system and is active in caring for the poor, which has given it an esteemed position in society.
Sister Medhin Tesfay (44) has belonged to the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul (Vincentians) for 26 years and works in the diocese of Adigrat in the northern part of Ethiopia. She talked about her work and her vocation with the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). The interview was held by Eva-Maria Kolmann.
Sister Tesfay Medhin of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul of the Tigray Region, Eparchy of Adigrat, in Ethiopia, during a visit to “Aid to the Church in Need”.
Sister Medhin, you belong to the Daughters of Charity. Please tell us a little about your work!
One part of our work is taking care of children and adolescents who are living on the streets. Some are orphans, others have run away from home because of conflicts within the family. The fathers are often alcoholics and physically abuse their families. In other cases, there are psychological disorders within the family. For example, we are currently taking care of a girl whose mother has a psychological disorder that leads her to bring home all the garbage she finds on the streets. She throws all of the refuse on the bed and scatters it across the family’s small living area. There is no space left in the home for the child. We sisters visit the family members of the children to show them esteem and love and offer them our help. We listen to them and give them advice. In some cases, the problems can be solved and the children can return to their families. We support them and their family members in this process. If this is not possible, the children stay with us. We make sure that they can go to school and that they have everything they need.
But we also take care of the sick, for example those infected with AIDS, and run an eye clinic. We provide medical care, but it is also important to listen to the patients and to give them assistance and help of all kinds, also emotional and spiritual.
What do you consider the spiritual foundation of your service?
The founder of our order, St. Vincent de Paul, said, “Ten times a day a sister will go to visit the sick poor; ten times a day she will find God there.” That is exactly what has been my personal experience and I get a lot more back than I give!
In carrying out our work, it is important to always look beyond the superficial outward appearance. A person can be completely filthy and dressed in rags, but we need to recognise Christ in him. On the other hand, you should not turn anyone away just because he is well dressed and affluent and you don’t believe that he really needs help. Even the wealthy can be in great spiritual need. Supposed beauty or ugliness cannot be a criterion for us; instead, we always have to see Christ.
But how do you deal with the extreme poverty that you are faced with?
I consider the poverty that I am faced with a challenge to never cease doing good. The word “laziness” is not a part of my vocabulary. I have to give my best and use the abilities and opportunities that God has given me.
The poor can also never rest. Most of the people here are day labourers. If they don’t do anything today, then they will not have anything to eat tomorrow. With everything that I see, I do not want to waste any time, but answer the call that God has directed to me: namely, to love these people in the same way as God loves them.
The work of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul at Eparchiy of Adigrat in Ethiopia: Children from feeding program with Sr. Medhin.
How did you discover your own calling?
My family provided my first formation in faith. My parents, who were very deeply rooted in their faith, taught us to esteem God. They raised us in God’s love, the God who became incarnate and who loves us.
There were religious sisters in our village who worked in a clinic. When I was a pupil, I watched them carry out their service and felt a strong desire to do the same. I prayed, “Dear God, one day I also want to be like them!” Their example led me to the religious life and when I finished school, I joined the Daughters of Charity. That was 26 years ago. I wanted to change the lives of people in need out of a love for God. It was not that I didn’t have any other choice and all other doors were closed to me. No, although I had a large number of options, this was the path I chose and I am happy! If I were given the choice again today, I would do the same.
Has the relationship between the people and the faith also changed in Ethiopia since your childhood?
Yes, I believe so. Overall, there have been many changes. In many families, not all members share the same values. It is not uncommon for family members to belong to different religions. Many families fall apart. Overall, the faith is in decline. People think that they do not need God and that they are not dependent upon their family. Today, globalisation, the media and individualism play an ever more important role. In particular, for many the sacraments no longer hold the significance they once did. Today, the faith is in decline. Of course there still are deeply religious people, but overall, many things are changing.
What do you believe the Church should do to bring more people back to the faith?
First and foremost, the Church has to carry out its main task: the proclamation of faith. Life is meaningless if the spirit is not nurtured. Without Christ, there is no inner peace and everything just runs like a machine. We have to return Christ to the very centre of our lives. And no matter what else the Church does in terms of charitable activities, the spiritual always has to come first.
Ethiopia is one of the priority countries of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need. Last year, the local Catholic Church received aid amounting to more than 1.36 million euros. The main areas of support were the building of churches and chapels, offering formation to priests and religious, helping parishes that extend over wide areas carry out pastoral care by supplying motor vehicles as well as supporting the work of religious sisters.
The people of the Gumuz tribe live in western Ethiopia, close to the border with Sudan. Until just a few years ago they were a mainly nomadic people. In the late 19th century and well into the 20th century, many of the Gumuz people fell victim to Arab slave traders from Sudan.
To this day people living great poverty, and life is particularly difficult for the women. They have to do very heavy physical work, even while pregnant. And since there is a belief that the blood of a woman in childbirth brings a curse upon the family, the women are forced to go out alone to an isolated spot, such as a river bank, or deep in the forest, and give birth without any help or support. And since many girls are forced into marriage at a very young age, their bodies are scarcely mature enough to give birth for the first time, and of course they have no experience either. As a result they often suffer extremely long and difficult births, frequently with fatal complications. This and other such superstitions govern all areas of life, especially for the women, and are a cause of a great deal of suffering and fear.
Support for religious sisters working with the Gumuz people in Ethiopia
It was not until a few years ago that the Gumuz first came in contact with Christianity, but now the Good News of Christ is touching more and more hearts. Many of the people who have ceased to be nomadic and now live a more settled life, build their round huts as close as possible to the nearest church, and more and more of them are seeking baptism.
For the past three years now the sisters of the Congregation of Saint Joseph of the Apparition have been working among the people. The three sisters of the congregation prepare the candidates for baptism and generally help the people to better understand and live by the Christian faith. They give special support to the women and girls, for example by ensuring that the girls can attend school. In general, the Gumuz have been slow to embrace education and schooling, and while the government has recently been trying to encourage school attendance in the area, its efforts have so far borne little fruit. It is often very difficult to persuade the parents of the value of sending their daughters to school. The sisters are doing valuable work in persuading them, since this is one of the best ways of improving the lives of the girls and women. One of the sisters also runs a small kindergarten, which among other things helps to prepare the children for attending school when they are older.
The three sisters live in extremely simple conditions in a mud hut. They have asked our help to support their life and ministry. Although they ask very little for themselves, they still need to cover the cost of things like fuel, since their work means they have to travel to the many different widely scattered settlements. We have promised them 13,200 Euros to support their life and apostolate.
Young Christians in Ethiopia are being lured to convert to Islam by promises of jobs, education, help to buy houses and other aid, according to a Christian leader.
Christians, desperate to escape poverty, are being bribed to join the Muslim religion, Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need was told by a religious leader who asked to remain anonymous to protect his safety.
He said: “The [Muslim employers] are getting the younger ones – with scholarships, promises for jobs, and so on.
“Unemployment is at a very high rate in Ethiopia, so this is very attractive to the young people.
“They are told if you want a job you must live like this – the young people are targeted.
“You find hundreds or even thousands of young people waiting at the cross roads of towns and villages to see if they can find work.”
He added said that some mines only employ Muslims and are luring young Christians away from their faith with promises of permanent employment.
He said: “There are some rich Muslims who have taken control of major investments – in one diocese the marble mine and the gold mine – all these are owned by them and people are only given employment if they are Muslim.
“Young people convert if they are looking for jobs or if they are looking for homes.”
He added that converts to Islam are also given help to buy houses.
The religious leader also said that the number of mosques being built has increased: “If there are 10 Muslim families they will build a mosque for them – even where there are problems getting new churches built.
“Money comes from overseas countries like Saudi Arabia.”
He also described how Muslims are using bribery to attract members of animist groups in his diocese.
“Islam is reaching to them. They give them promises – whether it is education, jobs, or other help.”
The Christian leader expressed suspicions that the money used to attract the animists was also coming from outside the country.
He stressed that Ethiopia has traditionally had a history of Christians and Muslims living in harmony, but spoke of his fears that the country’s Islamic community was increasingly becoming influenced by foreign hard-liners.
He said: “While there have been no direct conflict or direct clashes, we are afraid that this may change within a few years – we have seen the precedent in Egypt and other nearby places.”
For more information about the situation of religious freedom in Ethiopia, please check: http://religious-freedom-report.org/report/?report=198
Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel, Head of Ethiopian Bishops Conference and Archbishop of Addis Ababa recently visited the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in Königstein, (Germany) to say a word of thanks for the help given by the Charity to the pastoral work of the Church in his country. Benedikt Winkler, a journalist at the weekly newspaper “Die Tagespost”, took the opportunity to speak to him about the current political situation in Ethiopia, relations with Islam and the important work done by the Catholic minority in the country.
Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel, Head of Ethiopian Bishops Conference and Archbishop of Addis Ababa
Eminence, the peace treaty between Ethiopia and Eritrea was recently signed in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia on 16th of September. How do you view the influence of Saudi Arabia on Ethiopia?
The decision for peace was taken in Saudi Arabia, not in New York or Bejing. I don’t know why. Saudi Arabia is a country with great influence in the Red Sea region. Saudi Arabia is probably also interested in the peace in the region around the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. This may be the sole reason but I don’t really know whether other interests are involved.
Do you see the nascent peace in Ethiopia more threatened by religious or by ethnical conflicts?
I would say at the moment more by ethnical conflicts because the federal system of government in Ethiopia is based on ethnic lineage. This led to more diversity, more tension and a greater emphasis on ethnic differences than on the unity of all people in Ethiopia. This is why there are ethnic conflicts in various parts of Ethiopia. But I hope that the new Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed will unify the country and give more priority to unity than to diversity.
As you mentioned, Ethiopia’s new prime minister is Abiy Ahmed. He belongs to the Oromo ethnic group. His father is a Muslim, but he himself converted to Protestantism. Is Ahmed the right man to heal the ethnic conflicts?
I think so because he has been chosen by the coalition party. He is a person dedicated to unity. But probably some members of the past government are not happy with the way he is carrying out his new mandate. Thus he might encounter some opposition. Over the last six months he has shown that people should come together, forgive each other, reconcile with each other and solve conflicts. What moves him most is his love for his country. Whether he is the right person or not, time will tell. He has made peace with Eritrea. If Eritrea gets good democratic institutions for a stable government, then it could guarantee future stability not only for the horn of Africa but for all of Eastern Africa.
Ethiopia, diocese Meki
Eminence, compared to European countries Ethiopia is a nation with many young people. Many of them seek better job perspectives in Europe, South Africa and Saudi Arabia . What does the church in Ethiopia, the catholic minority and the orthodox majority, do so that young people can prosper in their home country rather than emigrate?
Accounting for less than two percent of the population, the Catholic Church is a minority in Ethiopia. It runs many institutions for the youth, be it educational, social or health institutions – in rural as well as in urban areas. We have more than 400 schools in Ethiopia spread all over the country. Most of the schools in the cities are able to maintain themselves but in the rural areas they need to be subsidized. We care for young people from different ethnic or religious groups – orthodox, muslim, protestant. As the Catholic Church in Ethiopia we feel it is important to create training opportunities for young people according to their capabilities. We train young women as nurses, as cooks, as hotel managers. We encourage young people to remain and work in their home country. For this we need an appropriate infrastructure and the possibility of creating new jobs. We don’t encourage emigration especially illegal migration without documents because then the youth become playthings for bandit groups engaged in illegal trafficking of people across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia or via Libya to Europe. To avoid this we encourage only legal migration – and only when abolutely necessary. We feel that young people love their country and so they should be given opportunities to remain at home.
How would you describe the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia?
The relationship between Islam and Christianity has been peaceful thus far. The prophet Muhammad founded Islam in Mecca. He was persecuted by his own tribe. He had to flee. He sent his relatives to Ethiopia. The Muslims came as refugees to Ethiopia. In Muslim tradition it is written “Don’t touch Ethiopia because Ethiopia was always kind to us when we were refugees”. So we have peaceful coexistence, in particular with the Sunni Muslims in Ethiopia. We don’t have many fundamentalists in the country. Fundamentalists like Al Shabbat which is linked with Al Qaida, can be found in Somalia. Within Ethiopia however we have peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims.
October 28 is WORLD MISSION SUNDAY. Usually people always think immediately of primary evangelization; but it is also appropriate to speak about what can be done for the re-evangelization of Europe?
You know Ethiopia has a lot to give to the world. We were grateful to hear that the Europe had accepted many refugees. Ethiopia itself has taken in nearly a million refugees from South Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. Why? Because Ethiopia has Christian values. Ethiopia has been a Christian nation since apostolic times. We hold that hospitality is part and parcel of the Christian heritage of Ethiopia. Christian values are very important. An elderly person, a refugee, a migrant is first and foremost a human being. He might be sent by God to you. He might be a blessing for you. Receive him well, treat him well. That is biblical. Ethiopia has been doing this for centuries. We received Jews who later went on to Israel. Arabs too. We gave refuge to Armenians, who had suffered persecution in Turkey. Ethiopia has always been a country of hospitality in fidelity to the gospel.
I think Europe also needs to strive be faithful to its Christian heritage. The West should not be ashamed of being Christian with great values – be it in times of crisis or in good times like now. Ethiopia has shown that religion should be given its proper place in society. We hope that we have been able to bring across this message.
ACN supports numerous projects in Ethiopia. In 2017, there were more than 80 projects for nearly 1.4 million euros.
The Institute for Philosophy and Theology run by the Capuchin Fathers in Addis Abeba is the only Catholic higher educational institution in central and southern Ethiopia. All the dioceses and all the religious communities in this country of Eastern Africa send their seminarians for their studies there.
The Institute also includes a „Capuchin Research and Retreat Center“, which provides religious formation for adults, spiritual accompaniment and retreat days for religious and laity alike. These facilities are likewise open to Orthodox and Protestant believers, and every other week there is an ecumenical seminar devoted to various different topics drawn from the fields of religious art, philosophy and literature. National conferences are held four times a year and every three years there is also an international congress.
A bookbinding machine for the Capuchin Fathers in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia
The centre also publishes books, among other things translating spiritual classics from the European languages into Amharic and also publishing the contributions to the conferences, making them available not only to specialist readers but also to a wider public. At present the centre can print the books itself, but not bind them. This results in great delays in publication, and in addition it is expensive to have the books bound externally – which naturally also increases the price of the books. The centre, which is nonprofitmaking, would like to be able to offer the books at affordable prices. And so the Capuchin Fathers have asked ACN for help. We have promised 18,000 Euros for a bookbinding machine.