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A new life for the Symposium of the African bishops.

Active participation within the African Union. Establishing two bodies: conflict resolution and the equatorial forest preservation. Two key words: lobbying and advocacy. We spoke with Mons. Gabriel Charles Palmer-Buckle, Archbishop of Accra (Ghana) and member of the SECAM Presidency.

SECAM (Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar) has recently obtained observer status at the African Union (AU). What do you expect from this result?


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Observer status gives SECAM the right of participation with advisory functions in decisions which affect the destiny of our continent. We would like to tackle urgent issues at the UA such as: good governance, conflicts that plague our continent and migration. Why do so many of our young people go to Europe? Because they want to leave the wars and ethnic violence which are going on in their countries. We need to develop a way for reconciliation among peoples, among the various political forces and governments.
We also want to bring the issue of land grabbing to the AU table. Multinationals of powerful countries are buying large pieces of land and exploiting the natural resources with which Africa is rich, with the consequent impoverishment of the already poor people. The Church must implement a useful lobbying and advocacy activity with regard to these issues.

SECAM, which was founded almost fifty years ago, has shown, during all this time, some difficulty to bring forth the African vision to the whole Church, but today it seems to have acquired a new vitality.

The first thing I would like to say is that we have already invited Pope Francis to Africa for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of SECAM, which was established in 1969 with the participation of Pope Paul VI, who said on his first pilgrimage to Africa, “Now, you Africans are missionaries to yourselves”.

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If we consider the growth of the African Church over the past 50 years, we can say that not only have we become missionaries to ourselves, but now we also send missionaries to Europe, America, Canada and other countries. The ‘sixties were the years of independence, today there are 55 independent countries; the Episcopal Conferences number 36. The Church in Africa is not only mature, but it is giving an important contribution to the universal Church. Benedict XVI, at the opening of the Synod on Africa of 2009  said: “Africa today is the spiritual lung of humanity”. These Popes had a prophetic vision on Africa.

SECAM is not yet a continental Episcopal conference. Do you think it will be possible to achieve this objective?

I often wonder what the statute of a continental Conference should be. It is important to consider the complexity of Arica, which is an almost seven thousand kilometre long and four thousand kilometre wide continent. In the northern part, there are Arab and non-Arab countries, with very strong cultural diversities: Egypt and Ethiopia’s Churches are very ancient; Sub-Saharan Africa is another cultural reality; Southern Africa is a subcontinent with a completely different story; West Africa has been a land of colonization by the  English, Portuguese and French, and then there are more than 2000 ethnic groups. By choosing the word Symposium, instead of Conference, the founding fathers of SECAM wanted to emphasize their desire for communion and exchange, sitting around a table, making decisions not to prevaricate the others but for the common wealth.
Some people say that SECAM should be established as a Conference, but in a continent like Asia there is a Federation, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC); in Europe there is the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE). I therefore believe that the activity implemented on site is more important, rather than analyzing whether the statute of a Conference differs from that of a Symposium, a Board or a Federation.

Many ask for the establishment  of two continental structures: one for conflict resolution and the other for the creation of an African network for the management of the rainforest. What is SECAM going to do to this regard ?

We, the members of SECAM want the realisation of these two structures. We would like to create a Council of cardinals and bishops, chosen from various parts of Africa, who can intervene where and when there is a problem. For example, Cardinal Ouédraogo was all alone when the coup d’etat occurred in Burkina Faso, in September, last year; a clear position taken by a continental body (composed of cardinals and bishops from other countries) would have helped the people of Burkina to realize that the African Church did not accept this way of overthrowing governments. With regard to what is going on in South Sudan, SECAM, through its presidency, may make pressure on governments.

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With reference to the equatorial forest, I think that the creation of an African network for the preservation of the rainforest is essential, since its uncontrolled deforestation would have a negative impact on the entire planet. The Church must also express its opinion about the issue of the exploitation of African resources. The African justice and peace network, in Ghana, with the help of the American Bishops’ Conference, is explaining to our traditional leaders why they should  refuse certain contracts with multinationals. Local governments generally find themselves powerless in the face of multinationals. That is why the Church is called on to do something. SECAM could start a lobbying activity on site in the first place and then before international bodies. Africa is too rich in natural and human resources to remain poor; in 20 years the continent should be a different place. The history of Africa should not always be a history of diseases, poverty and refugees; it should be a story of human, intellectual and spiritual wealth. (F.F.)

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