Interview with the President of the Uganda Episcopal Conference

Author: LOR

Interview with the President of the Uganda Episcopal Conference

L'Osservatore Romano

Nicola Gori

A developing Church committed to peace

Uganda is a Christian country with a Catholic majority and a flourishing indigenous Church dedicated to confronting numerous challenges. These include the repair of the social fabric in the Northern regions, involved in a conflict that has lasted for more than 20 years. This is the social and religious situation in Uganda, described here by Bishop Matthias Ssekamanya of Lugazi President of the Uganda Episcopal Conference whose members were in Rome for their visit ad limina Apostolorum.The role of lay people in the community, the efforts made to restore peace to the country and the commitment in the fight against poverty and the spread of AIDS are among the main topics addressed in this interview.

The Ugandan people has been living through a particularly turbulent period because of fratricidal wars and the spread of AIDS. On what forces has the Church been able to draw to support the country in its efforts to get the better of this situation?

Thanks be to God we are a Christian country with a Catholic majority so we have been able to employ various forces. A fundamental aid to the forces of the Catholic Church and Christianity in general should be attributed to the activity of the first missionaries. While they proclaimed the word they taught people to read and write, thereby bringing a message of brotherhood and hope. The people accordingly associated Christianity with positive messages and with education, seen as an opportunity for development. Moreover catechists were also trained to be teachers. And health-care assistance also arrived with Christianity. In addition, the missionaries provided other social services to demonstrate their attention for the poor. Once the seed of faith had been sown, it was passed on to the successive generations through the power of the Holy Spirit and God's action in the conversion of our people.

So do committed lay people play a lead role in the Church in Uganda?

They participate actively and, complying with the instructions of the Second Vatican Council, carry out their ministry in the villages through various movements: Legio Mariae,prayer groups and youth ministry. Catechists are in the front line where priests are scarce and above all lay people share the government of the Church in the pastoral, diocesan and parish councils and in the basic Christian communities. In particular, they serve as a strong arm of administration and the Church has encouraged them to make use of their profession to play an active role in society. The advancement of the family, for example, is directly linked to the participation of lay people in the life of the Church.

How do you combat poverty?

We are very active with formation courses in sustainable farming and with local business activities in 19 dioceses in the country that aim to increase the food production of families.

There is talk of the so-called Ugandan "model" to counter the spread of AIDS. What is the actual situation?

In 1995 the Episcopal Conference set up "HIV/AIDS Focal Point" to help people. According to the "National HIV Behavioural Survey" of 2004/2005, one million people are infected with the virus in Uganda. Much has been done to educate the population but the high number of the newly infected is worrying. The most recent survey on the manner of its transmission shows that there are more than a hundred thousand new infections every year. After a preliminary phase from 1980 to 1992, during which it spread rapidly, at a rate of more than 18 per cent, and then a phase in which the percentage fell to 6.4 per cent between 1992 and 2002, we are now in a phase of stabilization with threats of another increase on the horizon.

What practical projects address this problem?

In recent years a significant increase in funding has been recorded at a world level and within the nation. We have seen the implementation of the global Fund to combat AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Uganda has benefited from it and "Focal Point" has worked tirelessly to help the dioceses and the other Church institutions to gain autonomous access to these resources, through the sharing of information, the assessment of funding requests and other consultancies. It is also disturbing to have discovered that some of the sums allocated have not been used correctly, due to the high level of corruption throughout the country.

But positive aspects have not been lacking?

Networks of collaboration have been built up which, in line with the policy of decentralization put in place by the Government, have made it possible to improve coordination and to increase the visibility of Catholic services for AIDS. Proof of this is the increased representation of the diocesan staff of "Focal Point" in the district Commissions for the fight against AIDS. "Focal Point" has also helped to set up the anti-AIDS network of Caritas Internationalis, which was deliberated at the last International AIDS Conference held in Mexico. Although treatment to prevent this disease has become more accessible in the past six years, the Church and other partners have had to do far more to prevent new cases of contagion. To this end closer collaboration with each other on the prevention front has been imposed on all the dioceses. Ten dioceses have had access to funding for this purpose, in order to extend the coverage and range of services offered.

Let us now come to reconciliation with the rebels of the "Lord's Resistance Army" who have battled against the Government for more than 20 years.

The conflict in the country's North-Eastern regions has caused untold harm in terms of human lives. The Church has contributed to the efforts for peace in the region and for the end of the war that began in 1986. The Bishops are concerned by the loss of so many human lives, by the mutilation and disfigurement of so many people, the disappearance of small, innocent children, the destruction of property and the consequent poverty. The national conscience cannot but feel shame for all this. In 2007 the Uganda Joint Christian Council (UJCC), the ecumenical organization that gathers Catholics, Anglicans and Orthodox, published the joint document: "A Frame for Dialogue. On Reconciliation and Peace in Northern Uganda". Three consultative meetings have been held in Lira. Taking part in them were members of parliament, government officials and the religious leaders who prepared the peace talks of Juba in 2006 to put an end to the war, even though, as everyone knows, trouble spots are still smouldering.

What has the Church done about this?

She has been in constant contact with the traditional Acholi, Karamajong, Lango and Iteso chiefs to urge them to use their influence to halt the rebels' activity. The Bishops have visited the region and have appealed to donors to guarantee humanitarian assistance for the population. Various dioceses have sent food and prayers have been raised throughout the country imploring God to put an end to this scourge. In 2009 the UJCC and other bodies organized a conference on the theme of reconciliation, justice and sustainable peace.

You mentioned the "Uganda Joint Christian Council". What are its relations with the other Christian Churches and communities?

They are good. The UJCC was set up in 1963 and the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Churches belong to it. Together, the members of these Churches account for 75 per cent of the population. Founded at a time of strong tension between the Christian Churches in Uganda, it aims to deepen their friendship, to promote ecumenism and Christian unity and to analyze questions of common interest, such as democracy, peace, health care, education, the equal dignity of men and women and social and economic justice. The Uganda Joint Christian Council also has a channel connecting it with Parliament in order to keep the Churches up to date on the bills of law under discussion and to find common ground on the national and religious issues at the centre of the public debate. On the other hand, we have no formal relations with the Evangelical Churches which, however, have recently asked to join the UJCC.

What is the situation of dialogue with Islam?

The Interreligious Council of Uganda (IRCU) was established in the year 2000 for Christians and Muslims. IRCU has initiated various programmes in the areas of the fight against AIDS and of peace, human rights, good government, communications and public information. All of these efforts have the approval of the Catholic Church.

And what about the dialogue with the Traditional African Religions?

The Church seeks to maintain good relations through her Commission for Interreligious Dialogue. The positive values of the Traditional African Religions are not rejected but rather are used to further the inculturation of Christianity in Uganda. On the other hand, negative aspects, such as polygamy, witchcraft and human sacrifices, are not accepted. The Church is aware that even if our people are Christian, some incompatible features of their legacy have endured.

In 2000 the collective suicide of 400 members of a religious sect in the environs of Kanungu turned the spotlights on to the problem of the sects.

We have no information to assess whether or not the sects are increasing. We only know that their freedom of worship — with music and dancing — holds certain Catholics in a strong grip. Consequently we must work to ensure that our liturgies are appreciated by the people. Moreover, to win over their followers the sects use money and material goods as well as false ministries of healing. And they seek to put the Catholic Church in an evil light.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 March 2010, page 4

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