Christians struggle to assist in Ivory Coast

Amid a renewed civil war in the West African country of Ivory Coast, Christian aid groups are struggling to cope with an expanding humanitarian crisis largely ignored by the international community.

In October and December of last year, Ivory Coast conducted a presidential election as mandated by a 2007 peace accord that ended nearly five years of civil war. Opposition leader Alassane Ouattara won that electoral contest with a clear majority of the votes. The election results were certified by the Independent Electoral Commission and Ouattara was declared the winner by the United Nations.

However, incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to abide by the democratic process and remained in office by force of arms.

Over the past several months, political violence has escalated steadily, culminating in civil war.

Ivory Coast is an ethnically and religiously diverse society. The southern half of the country is mainly Christian and the north is largely Muslim. However, about a third of the country's 21 million people follow indigenous religions.

Because Gbagbo is a Catholic and Ouattara is a Muslim, the conflict appears to be sectarian in nature, at least on the surface.

"Every aspect of life in the African community is bound to have religious undertones," Aiah Foday-Khabenje, general secretary and CEO of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa, tells ChristianWeek.

However, says Aiah, "I do not see the conflict in [Ivory Coast] as a religious one between Christians and Muslims."

Ethnic tensions are playing a much larger role in the conflict, the Christian leader claims.

Forces aligned with president-elect Ouattara appeared to be on the verge of defeating the Gbagbo regime, at the time of writing.

According to the UN, one million people have been displaced by the fighting in Abidjan, the country's commercial centre and de facto capital. At least another 100,000 refugees have fled across the border into Liberia, where they languish without adequate access to food, clean water, shelter, medicine or sanitation.

As the fighting intensified around the western city of Duekoue at the end of March, an estimated 30,000 displaced persons took refuge in a dangerously overcrowded Catholic mission lacking in humanitarian supplies.

"A real humanitarian crisis is unfolding in [Ivory Coast] and, unfortunately, we are hearing very little about it," says Kelly DiDomenico of Development and Peace Canada, the Canadian chapter of Caritas Internationalis, the humanitarian and development agency of the Roman Catholic Church.

Caritas Internationalis, one of the largest nongovernmental organizations in the world, is one of the few Christian NGOs on the ground in Ivory Coast.

"Caritas Cote d'Ivoire (CI) reports that there is a lot of uncertainty in the country and people in the capital of Abidjan feel threatened and insecure and continue to flee," DiDomenico says.

The Catholic charity, says the communications officer for Development and Peace Canada, "has already begun to respond to the needs in Abidjan and are actively working to put in place more humanitarian aid programs."

"Caritas CI is currently providing emergency humanitarian aid to an estimated 5,000 internally displaced persons and 400 host families...in the western part of the country near the border with Liberia," DiDomenico says.

Caritas aims to expand relief efforts to assist an additional 15,000 displaced persons, who include Ivoirians and migrant workers.

"The most direct way to help is to make a donation to humanitarian aid that is being organized for those affected by this political crisis," DiDomenico says.

Although not directly active in Ivory Coast, other Canadian churches are contributing to relief efforts through international Christian organizations.

For example, the United Church of Canada supports the efforts of the All Africa Conference of Churches to address the crisis, explains Wendy Gichuru, the United Church's coordinator for Africa and Middle East programs.

The ACT Alliance, composed of 111 churches and active in 140 countries, launched the ACT Liberia appeal last month to raise funds to help Ivorian refugees stranded in neighbouring Liberia.

"We continue to pray for the people of [Ivory Coast]," says Gichuru, "and through our membership in the ACT Alliance, contribute ecumenically to humanitarian and relief efforts."

Similarly, the Primate's World Relief Development Fund (PWRDF), the Canadian Anglican Church's international development agency, contributes to ACT's relief efforts in the West African nation, says Simon Chambers, the charity's communications coordinator.

"It is not rhetoric to say Christianity is a religion of peace," Aiah says. "The Christian message never supports conflict, no matter the circumstance."

And when the civil war ends and old grievances must be reconciled, the Christian leader sees an important role for the church in Ivory Coast.

"The church, as an institution, has been instrumental in peace-building and conflict transformation," Aiah says.

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Special to ChristianWeek

Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian rights journalist. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.