What is it like to be a Christian in Egypt?

What is it like to be a Christian in Egypt?

In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 photo, journalist and author Shady Lewis Botros poses with a copy of his book, “Ways of the Lord,” in London. The new Arabic-language novel, the author’s first, explores the lives of Egyptian Christians, dealing with discrimination but also a Church aligned with a state seeking to control them. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Shady Lewis Botros says his recently published novel — “Ways of the Lord” — can be broadly viewed as an attempt to answer one question: What it’s like to be a Christian in Egypt?

The answer, given in stories narrated by the book’s chief character, is complex and often disheartening. It’s giving your children neutral names that don’t identify them as Christians in hopes they’ll have a sporting chance of progress in the mainly Muslim nation. It means facing baseless but dangerous charges of spying for Israel at time of war. It means turning off the lights at home and gathering the family in one room to escape the attention of a Muslim mob on the street.

Beyond entrenched discrimination, the Arabic-language novel explores what the author says is the victimization of Egypt’s Christians by a “politically engineered harmony” between the state and their own church, seeking to control their lives.

“Ways of the Lord” is a rare example of an Egyptian work of fiction whose primary characters are Christian. The result breaks stereotypes that many of the country’s Muslims hold about their minority compatriots. But it also turns the look inward, dispelling the secrecy surrounding the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church — the predominant denomination in Egypt — and addressing its controlling practices and its rivalries with smaller churches.

“Most Coptic literature is about the discrimination or oppression Christians endure with a dose of rights advocacy. That’s understandable but that is also about as far as it goes,” Botros told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from London, his home of 13 years. “This work introduces Egyptians to the reality of Copts as a people who are not always praying, singing hymns and waiting on every word from the church. The novel opens the world of Copts to both Copts and Muslims.”

The novel, the author’s first, takes on added relevance because the Coptic Church leadership has adhered closer than ever to the government. It’s an alliance that gives the community a measure of protection but has raised questions over its independence and has drawn the wrath of Islamic militants, who have over the past two years killed more than a 100 Christians in attacks.

The church’s unity is also being tested, partially over calls for it to modernize some of its rigid rules, like those governing marriage and divorce. The killing in July of the abbot of a monastery, for which two monks are on trial, has led to soul searching about the practices of monasticism, traditionally a cornerstone of the church’s identity.

The novel tells the story of a young Christian man in Cairo, Sherif, who has abandoned the church. He’s in a relationship with a German woman, but to marry her he must first get a church document. So he goes to his neighborhood priest each week for interviews that turn into confessionals.

Sherif relates a series of tales to explain to the priest why he never comes to church. He tells of his family’s past rebellions, like a grandfather who left the Coptic Church because the priest would not baptize his newborn child before her death.

As a young man, he says, he hopped from one Christian denomination to another to explore his identity. His father is cynical about his spiritual search, telling his son, “Generally, they are all con artists.”

The confession sessions with the priest are one of two plot tracks running through the novel. The other follows Sherif’s political activism, which lands him in trouble with the police. His one hope to escape jail time is to marry his girlfriend and go to Germany, but in the end, the girlfriend returns home. He spends a year in jail for a white-collar crime he did not commit.

“Sherif was painted as a character in crisis and that’s not just on account of being a member of a minority, but rather as someone facing an existential crisis over his problems with the church and the state,” said literary critic Ahmed Shawqy Ali.

The novel ends with Sherif surrendering to the powers that crush his rebellion. Jobless after losing his government engineering job, he survives on a small income from doing little jobs for the church, while telling his stories to whoever will listen. “The ways of the Lord are strange and tough to understand,” Sheriff says of his return to the church’s embrace.

Botros said the book’s “fatalistic” ending “shows that, in a place like Egypt, religious minorities like Christians don’t have many choices.”

The church presents itself as the protector of Egypt’s Copts, and many in the community adhere to it fervently.

“The church is a peacemaker that is in harmony with everyone, from the ruling government and civil society groups to al-Azhar,” said a church spokesman, Boulis Halim, referring to the top Muslim institution in Egypt. “We cannot deny that there are shortcomings in some respects, especially the social field, but that will evolve going forward.”

But critics say the interests of individual Christians get lost under the church’s communal leadership.

Kamal Zakher, a Christian who is one of Egypt’s top experts on the Coptic Church, said the church has become a “hostage” to the government for safety, particularly since the rise of Islamic hard-liners starting in the 1970s.

It and the government leadership deal with each other directly, but “they have all forgotten that ordinary Christians deal on daily basis with bureaucrats who, like everyone else, have been influenced by that Islamic revival,” Zakher said.

Karoline Kamel, a researcher on church affairs from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the novel’s main character is not typical of Coptic youth, who in large part associate closely with the church. But she said the novel gets the theme of control right.

“The church’s protection is focused on itself as an institution, as walls and buildings regardless of what happens to Christians,” she said.

How Nigeria can attract and keep the right kind of foreign direct investment

How Nigeria can attract and keep the right kind of foreign direct investment

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari at the US-Africa Business Forum in New York in 2016. EPA/Drew Angerer

Two of the largest banking and financial services institutions in the world, HSBC and UBS, have recently closed their local representative offices in Nigeria.

There’s also trouble brewing elsewhere in Nigeria’s business world that’s prompted fears about the climate for foreign direct investment in the country. Foreign direct investment is an investment made by a firm or individual in one country into business interests located in another country.

For instance, Nigeria’s government in September accused HSBC of money laundering after an analyst working for the lender said a second term for President Muhammadu Buhari may stall economic recovery in Africa’s biggest oil producer.

There are also tensions between Nigeria’s central bank and the South African telecom company MTN. In 2015, MTN was fined about $5bn for failing to cut off unregistered SIM cards. This was later reduced to $1.7 billion after a long legal dispute and the intervention of South Africa’s then President Jacob Zuma.

Recently, the central bank has ordered MTN to repatriate $8 billion it said has been taken out of the country illegally.

Analysts are concerned that the Nigerian government’s attitude towards MTN and the two banks may erode the confidence of foreign direct investors. Their fears seem to be well founded: foreign direct investment in Nigeria fell to $1 billion in the first half of 2018, from $1.48 billion in the first half of 2017.

Foreign direct investment is crucial for any economy. So how can Nigeria attract and keep the right kind of investment from global companies? Compromise will be key, both for the government and foreign firms.

Why foreign direct investment?

Foreign direct investment is often preferred to exporting. That’s because while exports merely involve moving goods from one country to another, foreign direct investment actually involves an investor establishing foreign business operations or acquiring foreign business assets.

This often includes establishing ownership or controlling interest in a foreign country (for instance an American business establishing a physical business presence in Nigeria). Many emerging economies like China, Brazil, Vietnam and India have built their growth on FDI flows.

The trick is to attract “quality foreign direct investment” that links foreign investors into the local host country economy. The International Growth Centre, a British-funded research centre that aims to promote sustainable growth in developing countries, characterises “quality” here as contributing to:

  • decent and value-adding jobs and enhancing the skill base of host economies;
  • transfer of technology, knowledge and know-how;
  • boosting competitiveness of domestic firms and enabling their access to markets.

What Nigeria can do

There are a few things Nigeria can do to boost foreign direct investment. For starters, it must play fair. Foreign and domestic businesses should be treated equally. They should be open, transparent and dependable conditions for all kinds of firms.

Another area that needs attention is infrastructure. Businesses need easy access to ports, an adequate and reliable supply of energy and relative certainty that the country will be good to invest in. Good institutions also promote FDI.

The government should encourage partnerships between foreign and local businesses. Foreign firms might be familiar with global good business practices, but local firms will be more familiar with the indigenous context. This synergy could be very beneficial.

It’s also critical that Nigeria gets its regional governments involved: there are many regions in Nigeria, and these regions all have unique opportunities and challenges. Our latest research shows that when the central government of Nigeria ran out of ideas and foreigners wanted to exit the agricultural sector, the regional government of Kwara state stepped in to create a positive business climate based on the cooperation of local banks, community members, and the foreigners themselves culminating in the Shonga farms public-private venture.

This has kept the firm in Nigeria. It’s also brought private investors to the table, bolstering the firm and the local economy.

Nigeria should also tap into its huge diaspora. There are many Nigerians living outside the country who understand its challenges. They should be encouraged to help, or asked to work with their networks to invest in the country.

What foreign firms can do

Foreign firms also have a role to play. They can enhance their success in Nigeria (and elsewhere on the African continent) in several ways.

First, they need a long term strategic plan. This means thinking carefully about what sectors or activities to target. Many foreign firms come to developing countries when things are rosy but leave when conditions change. They don’t properly consider that solving such problems will gain them a competitive advantage in the long run.

If they stay and follow a learning curve, foreign firms will better understand the local business context. They’ll also gain credibility among ordinary people and possibly get more customers and support that way.

In the same vein, foreign businesses should create local solutions that meet ordinary people’s needs. The banks leaving Nigeria have been accused of only catering to the needs of wealthy Nigerians, who are perceived as corrupt. A more diverse portfolio that catered to the needs of ordinary Nigerians would have nullified this claim.

Foreign firms must also work closely with credible and strategic local firms, and be willing to enter into dialogue with the Nigerian government where necessary. This is crucial especially as administrations may change or government policy may evolve. Dialogue could ensure that all parties are on the same page.

Act local, think global

It’s unfortunate that these banking institutions have decided to leave Nigeria. Hopefully both the Nigerian government and other foreign investors can learn from this.

The main takeaway for both foreign investors and governments involved in foreign direct investment is that it would be prudent for all parties to act locally but think globally.

For Kenya’s Yiaku, medicinal herbs are their forest’s blessing and curse

For Kenya’s Yiaku, medicinal herbs are their forest’s blessing and curse

Naisimari Lentula, a Yiaku herbalist, with a community forest scout outside her house. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.Naisimari Lentula, a Yiaku herbalist, with a community forest scout outside her house. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.

  • The Yiaku, hunter-gatherers turned herders who live deep inside Mukogodo Forest in central Kenya, have relied on herbal remedies for ages, with knowledge passed orally from one generation to the next.
  • However, high demand for the herbs from neighboring communities is exposing the forest to new threats — a trend mirrored across the country.
  • Recognizing that traditional knowledge is crucial to forest conservation, the government has taken steps to protect it, at least on paper. However, the Yiaku have received little support, even as their most knowledgeable elders pass on and their community becomes increasingly assimilated to their pastoral neighbors.
  • This is the third story in Mongabay’s three-part profile of the Yiaku’s management of their ancestral forest.

LAIKIPIA, Kenya — Naisimari Lentula, 80 years old, strolls carefully along a narrow footpath through the forest. Suddenly, she stops, her eyes fixed on several aromatic shrubs with bluish flowers that are tumbled over near the path. “This is the work of encroachers,” she says bitterly, then neatly sets the shrubs back to rights with the help of her walking stick.

For Lentula, inspecting the condition of the plants around her homestead is a routine she has perfected and performed every other morning for decades. “I have been using these shrubs for medication and used their fruits and tubers as food all my life,” she says.

A mother of four and grandmother of a dozen, Lentula is a Yiaku. The indigenous group lives deep inside Mukogodo Forest in central Kenya. Traditionally hunter-gatherers, the Yiaku have embraced pastoralism in recent decades. Although the Mukogodo area is well served by several government and privately owned hospitals and clinics, the Yiaku tend to frown on conventional health care, instead sticking to herbal medicines they gather from the forest. Like many elderly Yiaku, Lentula is a walking encyclopedia of traditional medicinal plants.

“You have to know the value of each and every tree here in order to survive and sustain your family’s livelihoods,” she tells Mongabay while stripping a piece of lichen-encrusted bark from a tree to administer to her sick neighbor. Her concoction includes the boiled bark of several tree species, mixed with fresh goat blood and honey — an instant cure for diarrhea, she says.

Despite her frail appearance and failing eyesight, Lentula doesn’t plan to retire from her calling as an herbalist any time soon. Nor does she take lightly intrusions that interfere with Mukogodo’s forest ecosystem. Like other Yiaku, Lentula has made it her sacred duty to monitor the 302-square-kilometer (117-square-mile) forest and ensure it remains intact.

In fact, the Yiaku are the only indigenous group to whom the Kenyan government has given full responsibility for managing its ancestral forest. They have been so successful at doing so through forest patrols, strategic placement of defensive beehives, and traditions such as the designation of sacred shrines and taboos against cutting trees, that the government plans to spread the model to other communities around the country. Medicinal plants are an important motivation for the Yiaku to conserve Mukogodo.

“We can only access medicinal plants if we protect this forest,” Lentula says.

However, high demand for the herbs, from neighboring communities, is exposing the forest to new threats. In addition to regular small-scale disturbances like the one Lentula observed, community members say outsiders in search of medicinal plants felled several cedar and olive trees in the last year. What pains Yiaku elders most is that some of these were highly treasured trees in a sacred shrine that serves as a water source for the community. They say the intrusions occur mainly during dry seasons when other communities’ habitats have been devastated by drought. The forest suffered the longest spell of intrusions in recent memory this past year.

“The encroachment by outsiders in search of herbs could put us on a collision course with the authorities and affect our livelihoods,” says Matunge Manasseh, a Yiaku elder. “We harvest these herbs with a lot of caution so as not to affect the life of a tree, but these encroachers lack the technique and know-how of which specific part of a tree has these medicinal values and instead they cut the entire tree while only the bark has medicinal value.”

Manasseh tells Mongabay that the Yiaku community has been generous with information about medicinal plants, but that in return the recipients have ended up using it to damage the forest. “We are now becoming cautious about who we share this knowledge with and for what purposes,” he says, adding that the community must focus on protecting rare tree species that are most sought after by outside herbalists.

To combat incursions from herbalists, the Yiaku have become more vigilant. They don’t allow strangers inside the forest without the elders’ consent. Early this year, the community’s forest guards arrested three intruding herbalists, turning them over to the council of elders for disciplinary action, which typically results in the imposition of curses.

It is unclear how many other arrests the guards made recently. Forest encroachment is a politically sensitive issue nationally, and especially in Laikipia county, where Mukogodo is located, and it’s common for conflicting accounts to emerge. The Yiaku forest guards claim to have arrested several individuals cutting down trees or taking medicinal plants in Mukogodo and to have handed them over to local authorities. However, the guards couldn’t say how many arrests they had made or when, and the provincial administration chief and Kenya Forest Service (KFS) conservator both denied having received the alleged culprits.

Map shows Laikipia County in Kenya, where Mukogodo Forest is located. Image courtesy of Google Maps.
Map shows Laikipia County in Kenya, where Mukogodo Forest is located. Image courtesy of Google Maps.
Map of Isiolo, Meru, and Laikipia counties in central Kenya shows Mukogodo Forest (center). Cick here to enlarge. Image by Yvonne A. de Jong and Thomas M. Butynski, wildsolutions.nl.
Map of Isiolo, Meru, and Laikipia counties in central Kenya shows Mukogodo Forest (center). Click here to enlarge. Image by Yvonne A. de Jong and Thomas M. Butynski, wildsolutions.nl.

A national problem

The Yiaku aren’t alone in facing down forest degradation for medicinal plants, and the trend has drawn the government’s attention. In Kenya, as in many African countries, the use of herbal medicine is on the rise, in part because conventional health care is unattainably expensive for many, or simply unavailable, especially in rural areas, according to a 2008 government brief. With just 15 doctors per 100,000 people, “The conventional system provides for only 30 percent of the population, implying that more than two-thirds of Kenyans depend on traditional medicine for their primary health care needs,” the brief states.

That reliance is taking a toll on the country’s forests.

“We are losing important medicinal tree species to commercial herbalists who are overharvesting trees that are premature,” says Peter Kitelo, a member of the Kenya Forest Indigenous Peoples Network, a Nairobi-based advocacy group. Kitelo says unscrupulous herbalists are exacerbating forest destruction and the loss of medicinal plant biodiversity in the Mau Forest Complex, home of the Ogiek indigenous group to which he belongs, as well as in other forests across the country.

The view is shared by conservationists, who note that rising human populations are raising the pressure on forests.

“Communities are increasingly encroaching on forests due to climate change and to expand their agricultural land, thus putting pressure on forests and medicinal plants,” says Joseph Mungai, a technical consultant with USAID who is advising the Kenyan government on forest conservation and climate change resilience.

By the same token, because traditional medicinal knowledge among the Yiaku and other indigenous peoples plays a vital role in their conservation of forests, researchers are concerned about the rate at which this knowledge is being lost. Over the past century the Yiaku have adopted the culture and language of their pastoral Maasai neighbors, and most of their old people have died without passing their immense wealth of traditional knowledge on to the next generation. Currently there only two remaining elders who can fluently speak the Yiaku language.

Yiaku elders Moses Litiku (left) and Naisimari Lentula (right) walk in Mukogodo Forest. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.
Yiaku elders Moses Litiku (left) and Naisimari Lentula (right) walk in Mukogodo Forest. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.

Edmund Barrow, an independent community conservation and governance consultant based in Nairobi, says the traditional knowledge of indigenous communities is crucial to sustainable land and natural resource management. Indigenous people know more plant species and their medicinal properties than most researchers do, he says, adding that this knowledge should be incorporated into forest policy, both to safeguard it and help conserve the forest.

He also says it should be added to school curricula to keep it alive. “We need to bridge this gap in order to ensure the knowledge doesn’t die with the elders,” he says.

“Traditional knowledge about biodiversity is inadequately protected” and used, says Barrow. “We have very good laws [and policies] on paper but implementing them remains a challenge.”

Since 2009 Kenya has enacted progressive laws and taken other steps to protect and conserve indigenous and local communities’ intellectual property rights over their traditional knowledge, skills and practices, including traditional medicines. However, implementing them has remained a pipe dream, despite the formation of institutions dedicated to the effort.

For instance, in 2009 the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (KIPI), the government agency in charge of patents and trademarks, introduced the Traditional Knowledge and Genetic Resources Unit. One of the unit’s main initiatives was to establish a comprehensive national database of traditional knowledge, in partnership with various Kenyan research institutions, according to Stanley Atsali, a patent examiner with the KIPI.

But nearly a decade later, nothing has been done. This despite the country’s adoption, in 2016, of the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Cultural Expression Act, which specifically mandated the establishment of the database and gave the national government powers to consult with county governments to make it happen.

“We are yet to kick off the process,” Atsali tells Mongabay. “We are working with county governments and research institutions to fast-track this process.”

None of the high-level initiatives have trickled down to the Yiaku. They say they have yet to receive any support from either the national or county governments in documenting and protecting their traditional knowledge, despite the government’s acknowledgement that it has been so critical to conserving Mukogodo Forest.

Article Courtesy of Mongabay.  Shadrack Kavilu is a freelance environmental journalist based in Nairobi. He has published in local and international media outlets, including the Mail and Guardian and Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

A view of Mukogodo Forest, a 302-square-kilometer (117-square-mile) tract of largely intact dry forest that is home to 45 mammal species, including threatened elephants, buffaloes and leopards, as well as around 200 bird and 100 butterfly species. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.
A view of Mukogodo Forest, a 302-square-kilometer (117-square-mile) tract of largely intact dry forest that is home to 45 mammal species, including threatened elephants, buffaloes and leopards, as well as around 200 bird and 100 butterfly species. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.
In Uganda, Catholics protest as archbishop asks government to enforce tithe

In Uganda, Catholics protest as archbishop asks government to enforce tithe

A nun reflects during a solemn moment as Pope Francis leads a Holy Mass for the Martyrs of Uganda at the area of the Catholic Sanctuary in the Namugongo area of Kampala, Uganda, on Nov. 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

KAMPALA, Uganda (RNS) — Thousands of Catholics in one of the world’s poorest nations are objecting after the church asked the government to collect a 10 percent tithe from worshippers on its behalf.

A similar “church tax” in Germany has generated record revenue for the Catholic Church there, according to the German Handelsblatt newspaper — but the policy is also blamed for driving millions of people to leave the faith.

“Why should the church keep asking for money all the time?” asked John Mayanja, 46, a teacher at Kitante Primary School in the East African nation. “We are supposed to give tithe willfully and without any threats from our church leaders.”

During an Oct. 28 Mass at Rubaga Cathedral in the capital city of Kampala, Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga urged the Ugandan government to immediately begin deducting a 10 percent tithe from the monthly salaries of all Catholic believers to ensure the church’s work does not stop because of lack of funds.

Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga. Photo courtesy of Archdiocese of Kampala

Lwanga said many do not voluntarily give the church 10 percent of their incomes.

“We lie to God that we pay church tithe off our monthly salaries. But during a Mass like this, whenever we ask for tithe, everyone gives only what they have at that time,” Lwanga said.

“The Bible says a tenth of whatever you earn belongs to the church, and you should give me support as I front this proposal because it is good for us.”

Some Ugandan Christians questioned the church’s motives, saying a church tax forces poor people to fund extravagant lifestyles for some priests and bishops.

“They should understand that we are paying fees for our children and servicing government loans. We have no money,” Mayanja said.

More than a third of Uganda’s nearly 43 million people live on less than $1.90 per day, the international marker of extreme poverty, according to World Bank. The Brookings Institution reports 3 in 10 households in Uganda spend more than 65 percent of their income on food.

Lwanga said he wants Catholics in Uganda to emulate their counterparts in Germany, where 8-9 percent of churchgoers’ income is deducted and channeled to the respective faiths.

“The money is used to build and renovate their churches,” said Lwanga, who also serves as chairperson of the ecumenical Uganda Joint Christian Council. “If an employee in Germany gets $10,000, the government deducts $1,000 and gives it to the church, and it is working very well.”

The Catholic Church in Germany collected a record $7.1 billion last year in taxes, Handelsblatt reported, although more than 2.2 million Germans have formally deregistered from the church since 2000. Those who deregister are no longer subject to the church tax but can no longer participate in church life — an outcome Archbishop Georg Gänswein has called a “serious problem.”

Several other European nations also collect religious taxes, which are sometimes voluntary, according to the Pew Research Center.

Catholic faithful pray in front of a cross of Jesus Christ erected by a roadside in Kakoge, north of Uganda’s capital Kampala, on October 18, 2015. Photo by James Akena/Reuters

The idea of deducting tithes from salaries was widely supported by some Ugandan officials who are also Catholic believers. Many dismissed the archbishop’s critics, saying Lwanga’s suggestions were based on Scripture.

“The archbishop was reminding the church and only Catholics that they need the money to run church activities,” said Betty Nambooze, a legislator representing Mukono, a town in central Uganda.

Catholics are Uganda’s largest religious group, but the Catholic share of the population has declined slightly in recent years. Catholics made up 39.3 percent of the population in the 2014 census, down from 41.6 percent in 2002. Around 32 percent of Ugandans are Anglican, and 14 percent are Muslim.

Religious leaders from other denominations questioned Lwanga’s strategy.

“Any believer who is not paying his or her tithe has no space in heaven. They are stealing and cheating God,” said Pastor Moses Mugisa of Redeemed Church of God, a Pentecostal church. “So there’s no need of forcing believers to pay tithe through government.”

Some vowed not to support the idea, saying the Bible does not sanction governments to collect tithes and offerings from worshippers.

“I want to ask the government to revoke credentials of any priest or bishop that petitions it to help them collect tithe,” Cyrus Rod, a bishop at Dominion Temple International, a Pentecostal church, told journalists in Kampala. “The clergy are working purely for material reward and we’ll not allow them to mislead the country. The role of priests is to collect tithes and offerings. It’s a not a political role.”

Mayanja and other Catholics said they will oppose Lwanga’s proposal because they believe it goes against Catholic teaching.

“God does not demand a certain amount of money from his people,” said Mayanja. “We give offering and tithe from our hearts. What our leaders are doing is extortion and is not based on the word of God.”

Uganda, in red, located in eastern Africa. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Ethiopia Gets Its First Female President

Ethiopia Gets Its First Female President

Video Courtesy of SABC Digital News


FROM NPR

Ethiopia’s parliament has made Sahle-Work Zewde the country’s first female president. And while the role is largely ceremonial, her appointment carries power in what it signifies.

Sahle-Work, an experienced diplomat, is the first female head of state in Ethiopia’s modern history. In June, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Sahle-Work as special representative to the African Union and head of the U.N. Office to the African Union — the first woman in the role. She was previously director-general of the U.N. Office at Nairobi and held a range of diplomatic posts, including Ethiopia’s ambassador to France and Djibouti.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE ON NPR

Tired of war, South Sudanese pray for latest peace deal

Tired of war, South Sudanese pray for latest peace deal

JUBA, South Sudan — During a recent Sunday service, Pastor Jok Chol led the congregation at his Pentecostal church to pray for a sustainable peace after President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar signed the latest peace agreement in neighboring Sudan.

The two leaders signed an agreement in mid-September, hoping to end years of conflict.

“I want to rebuke the spirits of confusion in our leaders,” Chol prayed, amid cheers of “Amen” from hundreds of worshippers. “We thank God and pray that he touches the hearts of our leaders so that they can embrace the new peace agreement.”

During his sermon, Chol urged his congregants to have faith and hope and continue to pray for a sustainable peace. He said they should refuse to be divided by political leaders along ethnic lines.

“We are all children of God,” said Chol, 55, a father of three. “We should treat each other with the love of Jesus Christ. Please don’t do anything wrong because your leader has told you. Follow what the Bible says and you will be blessed.”

Chol and his congregants are among thousands of Southern Sudanese gathering in churches and various mosques across major cities and refugee camps to pray for their country, which has been embroiled in civil war since 2013.

South Sudan, red, in central Africa. Map courtesy of Creative Commons

South Sudan erupted into civil war after a power struggle ensued between Kiir and Machar. The conflict spread along ethnic lines, killing tens of thousands of people and displacing millions of others internally and outside the border. The economy has collapsed as a result of the ongoing war. Half of the remaining population of 12 million faces food shortages.

The latest treaty is the second attempt for this young nation to find peace. South Sudan became officially independent from Sudan in 2011. In 2013, civil war broke out after Kiir fired Machar as his deputy, leading to clashes between supporters of the two leaders.

A previous peace deal in 2016 tried to bring warring sides together so they could find a permanent solution. But fighting broke out in the capital city of Juba a few months later when Machar had returned from exile to become Kiir’s vice president as outlined in the peace agreement.

Under the new power-sharing arrangement Machar will once again be Kiir’s vice president.

Religious leaders such as Chol are optimistic that the latest peace agreement will hold up. They believe it is an answered prayer for thousands of faithful.

“I have hope in the new peace agreement,” said Bishop Emmanuel Murye of Episcopal Church in South Sudan. “We have been praying for peace to return to the country and we are happy that our leaders are committed to bring peace.”

Murye has been holding evangelistic meetings in refugee camps in Uganda, where more than 1 million South Sudanese have taken refuge. He said people in the camps have been praying for leaders to embrace the new deal.

“People want to come back home,” he said. “They are tired of staying in the camp. Life in the camp is not easy because there is no food to eat and children are not going to school. They have been praying for peace and they believe this is an answered prayer.”

But others still doubt the new peace deal.

South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, center, and opposition leader Riek Machar, right, shake hands during peace talks at a hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on June 21, 2018. The two leaders signed an agreement in mid-September. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

Fighting broke out in the country, killing 18 civilians, two days after the warring sides signed the latest agreement to end the civil war. Kiir and Machar supporters blamed each other for the attacks.

Religion has played a major role in South Sudan’s conflicts.

According to a recent report by Pew Research Center, Christians make up about 60 percent of the population of South Sudan, followed by 33 percent who are followers of African traditional religions. Six percent are Muslim.

The war for South Sudanese independence was often framed in religious terms — pitting Christians and followers of traditional religions against the Muslim leaders of Sudan.

Achol Garang, a catechist at the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in northern Uganda, said God was punishing her country for its sins. She said political leaders in South Sudan used religion as a tool to fight for independence from Sudan.

“They called themselves Christian liberators when they were fighting and promised to take us to the promised land of self-government,” said Garang, 45, a mother of five who fled Yei town in southwest South Sudan in 2015. “They lied to God and that’s the reason we are suffering now. We should just continue to pray for forgiveness of sins. We will get the answer one day.”

The South Sudanese government has accused church leaders of promoting violence among congregants by dividing them along ethnic lines.

The East Africa nation has two major tribes that have been involved in the civil war. People from Dinka tribe are loyal to Kiir, while people from Nuer tribe are led by Machar.

Religious leaders agree there has been ethnic conflict. But they say the church still remains strong.

“While individual clergy may have their own political sympathies, and while pastors on the ground continue to empathize with their local flock, the churches as bodies have remained united in calling and for an end to the killing, a peaceful resolution through dialogue, peace and reconciliation — in some cases at great personal risk,” John Ashworth, who has advised Catholic bishops and other church leaders in South Sudan, told Inter Press Service in Juba.

Chol, the Pentecostal pastor, believes the country has now found new peace after prayers.

“We must have faith that we have already found peace,” he said. “God has promised that he will never abandon his children, and we are happy he has answered our prayers.”