A Church That Suffers With the People
This letter was originally published as a web exclusive in ONE magazine.
My dear brothers and sisters, the war in the northern part of Ethiopia, now in its third year, has created one of the fastest-growing displacement crises in our country. My eparchy of Bahir Dar-Dessie, which borders southern Tigray — the epicenter of the fighting — has been one of the hardest-hit areas.
Abune Sintayehu Gelaw, vicar general, and Abune Yohannes Wosen, O.F.M. Cap., the area coordinator for Kombolcha and Dessie, have been working tirelessly to assist the people in the town of Kobo.
Kobo is about 19 miles from the border of Tigray and was impacted severely by the war. There, the Capuchins and the Ursuline Sisters had been serving the community through education and health care. They carried out many pastoral and social activities, too, including administering an orphanage with 22 girls and one with 17 boys. When the town came under the control of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front for the first time in mid-July 2021, we had difficulty communicating with the Ursuline Sisters for months afterward.
The Capuchins, who also serve Kobo’s parish of St. Joseph and administer its elementary and high schools, managed to escape with the children, walking about 30 miles south to the next village, Weldya, saving their lives.
This year, on 25 August, the sisters fled. As soon as they left, the two schools, the clinic, the convent, the parish church and the rectory were looted and damaged; the altar and tabernacle, desecrated; the church linens soiled and the doors and windows, broken. As of September, close to 100,000 people had been displaced and had found refuge in the surrounding villages.
During this time of war, random acts of violence targeted civilians. I heard the sad story of a father of three children who was killed by an unknown person while simply walking along the road. It is a huge loss for the family, and it is difficult for his widow and children to survive. The family now relies on our help. As many people are requesting food, providing food to those in dire need has become a major challenge for us.
In Kobo, we are also faced with the challenge of reviving our clinic and schools; little remains. Bringing students back to school is important, as it is through education that we may transform society. But to do this, we need food for the children; we need to help the families settle; we need school materials and equipment.
I am deeply concerned for the safety and well-being of children, women and the elderly, who are extremely vulnerable during this conflict. Whatever the cause of the conflict, we should pray for the people of Tigray, for those who suffer due to the lack of security, food and medicine, for the children facing increased risk of hunger, abuse and separation from their parents.
Before conflict erupted in Tigray in November 2020, families struggled with crop failures, food shortages, inflated food and fuel prices and a health care system overburdened by recurrent drought, desert locusts and the spread of COVID-19. The situation is far worse now.
In addition, in the northwestern part of the Eparchy of Bahir Dar-Dessie, what is called the Metekel Zone in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region, a different, underreported conflict has been going on for years. An urgent, scaled-up response is needed. The hostilities intensified in 2021, without a reconciliation process in sight, affecting the lives of civilians and leading to a large number of displaced persons.
The humanitarian situation is alarming. Thousands of houses were torched and people fled, hiding in the forests. Thousands remain cut off from humanitarian assistance; access to basic services is limited. Many of the internally displaced people, most of them from the Gumuz community, the largest ethnic group in the region, have not received any food assistance, emergency health care, shelter or other essential, non-food items. While the number of our aid partners increased in 2021, their support is inadequate given the level of need.
In the town of Gublak, also in the Metekel Zone, some chapels have reopened even as others remain shuttered. The chapels in nearby Gilgel Beles, the administrative center of Metekel, have not been functional for some time as they were either damaged or destroyed. Sadly, the schools have suffered the same fate.
Recently, Abune Desalegn Haile, the pastoral coordinator in the area, and the Comboni Missionaries, who minister there, encouraged many Gumuz to leave the forests to come to church. The annual parish feast on 8 October, dedicated to Mary, Mother of the Church, bore great witness to these efforts as a multitude of people participated in the liturgy. However, during this devastating time of war, hatred is taking hold and grudges are rooted in the heart of our citizens.
My dear brothers and sisters, your prayers and support are greatly needed to overcome the difficulties at this time. We need humanitarian assistance to save lives. We need to ensure education for our children and young people, which is indispensable if we are to maintain peace.
And we need peace and reconciliation in our hearts, for I believe these are key to ending conflict. We are praying for peace to prevail among us all across the country.
I leave with you my love and my blessing that each of you may become happier and holier with each passing day.
Bishop Lisane-Christos Matheos Semahun leads the Ethiopian Catholic Eparchy of Bahir Dar-Dessie.