The Ivory Coast, officially Republic of Côte d´Ivoire, is a country in transition: after years of civil war, the people that make up this heterogenous society are trying to lead lives of unity and reconciliation. This is true in both politics and religion. The first successes have been achieved: in contrast to other African countries, Christians and Muslims are managing to coexist largely without tension. The political situation is not as volatile and a growth in investments has ensured that the economy is slowly gathering momentum.
In an interview during his visit to the German office of the international pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Ignace Bessi Dogbo talks to Tobias Lehner about interfaith reconciliation, places of worship that build cultural identity and what he thinks is the best refugee policy. Bishop Dogbo oversees the diocese of Katiola in the northern part of the Ivory Coast and is president of the Episcopal Conference of Côte d’Ivoire.
ACN: Bishop Dogbo, civil war raged in your country from 2002 to 2007. Bloody conflicts broke out once more in 2010 during the presidential elections. During this period, churches and priests also came under attack. What is the situation today?
Bishop Ignace Bessi Dogbo: By and large, the situation is calm. Fighting broke out after the presidential elections in 2010 because each side claimed victory. The former president Laurent Gbagbo is now in prison and awaiting trial before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The most recent presidential elections took place in 2015 (Editor’s note: The winner of the elections was again Alassane Ouattara. He has been in office since 2011.). The elections were quiet and orderly. However, the Ivory Coast remains divided between the supporters of the government and those of the opposition. The latter often have trouble finding work. They have enormous disadvantages. Membership in the government or opposition is often dependent upon which ethnic group a person belongs to – there are over 60 ethnicities living in the country. And this of course stirs up new hostilities.
How do the religions get along?
Christianity and Islam have about the same number of followers in this country. However, in the northern part of the country, where I am bishop, Catholics are a minority. There are also a lot of followers of tribal religions. For the most part, the religions coexist peacefully. We are a big family.
“Islamist tendencies from outside of the country”
This is in big contrast to other African countries, where membership in Islamist groups is growing in leaps and bounds. What makes the Ivory Coast different from other countries?
I think that this can be considered a political achievement and is largely thanks to the first president Félix Houphouët-Boigny (Editor’s note: in office from 1960 to 1993 following the country’s independence from France). He did a great deal to establish a dialogue between the religions. He made sure that if a mosque was built, then a church was built in the same place. This promoted peaceful coexistence. However, the truth is that Islamist tendencies have recently begun to appear. This is happening because of immigrants from other countries, such as Mali and Nigeria.
How do these tendencies manifest themselves?
For example, efforts are being made to ensure that there are more marriages between Muslim men and Christian women. The women then have to convert and the children from these unions are raised in the Muslim faith. Recently, a large number of affluent business people from Morocco began investing in our country. Their fellow Muslims are given preference over others. Or they try to lure our Christian youth with money: “We will give you work, but in return, you will have to become Muslim.” We bishops are trying to work against these kinds of campaigns. For example, we support measures that allow young people to build networks and take charge of their own education.
“Reconciliation begins with unity”
The war years affected all religions and ethnicities equally. In your opinion, how can reconciliation be achieved for the inhabitants of the Ivory Coast?
After the civil war, the politicians set up two reconciliation commissions and also appointed bishops to important positions. The commissions, made up of members of the various warring parties, ethnicities and religions, worked hard and made a lot of suggestions. These were ignored. And so the Church had to step in. We cannot manage reconciliation by ourselves, but we might be able to get the process started in society. This is why the bishops’ conference developed a new pastoral plan, which is intended for implementation between 2019 and 2023 and includes proposals for several concrete steps.
Which steps, for example?
The first step to reconciliation is unity. Unity both within and without – that is the path that Ivorians must follow now. We want 30 priests in the country to complete mediation training so that they can assist when conflicts break out in the regions or parishes. A further step is to intensify contact with other Christian denominations and Muslims.
For several years now, a highly controversial discussion on refugees has taken place in the West. Many young people no longer believe that they have a future in Africa and so they undertake the dangerous journey. In your opinion, what should the international community do?
The West should start at the source and not at the end. What I mean by this is: the people need help while they are still in Africa and not only after they have arrived in Europe as migrants. Young people from the Ivory Coast are also undertaking the dangerous journey to Libya and then across the Mediterranean Sea. But why are they leaving? Some of them are small farmers who cannot get fair prices for their products such as cacao. Some are being treated like slaves. The West could make a difference by paying fair prices so that these people can live from their earnings. This would stop them from emigrating. A fair trade policy is the best form of aid for developing countries!
What are the most urgent needs of the church on the Ivory Coast?
I believe that two things in particular are necessary: good churches and good priests. When I travel through the country, I see a lot of newly built mosques on the sides of the roads, while our churches and chapels are often in a desolate condition. However, if nothing is coming forth from the church, it also cannot reach the hearts of the people. The same is true for the priests. I have 54 priests in my diocese of Katiola and only 16 in the diocese of Korhogo, which is also under my direction. We need priests! Many candidates for the priesthood come from poor families and often cannot afford the materials necessary for a course of study. Material aid and solid spiritual training are essential. I know that I can depend on Aid to the Church in Need! I have often received funding to build churches and parish houses and for the seminary. Mass stipends are also very important, because they ensure that at least the basic needs of our priests are met.
In addition to building and renovating churches and parish centres, providing funding for the training of seminarians and subsistence aid for priests, the international pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need supports the printing and distribution of children’s Bibles and catechisms, the work of religious orders and the peace-building efforts of the local churches.