African Catholic Church a Vibrant Force for Change: Strengthened Ties with U.S. Catholics Aid Attention to Pressing Problems. (World)

Article excerpt

The Catholic church has a critical eye on President George W. Bush regarding U.S. policy toward Africa.

As Bush made his way through five African countries beginning July 7, he was probably unaware that no world group was monitoring his activities and comments more closely than the Catholic church, including churches in Africa and the United States and officials in the Vatican.

With unprecedented boldness, the 21st-century African Catholic church in more than a half-dozen African nations has stepped to the fore in demanding accountability from ruling juntas, elites and democratic governments, as/yell as from international corporations doing business in their countries. Many African bishops are backed by the skills and support of U.S. Catholic church agencies, such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services. And the aid apparently is available whenever they request it.

Expert observers say the support and the long-term relationship between African and U.S. bishops have fostered some bold initiatives. During the past 12 months alone:

* In Chad, the Catholic church was at the forefront in demanding transparency in plans for a transnational pipeline;

* In Kenya, ruled by a corrupt regime, the Catholic bishops are a vibrant voice demanding that moral and ethical standards be applied to the government's actions;

* In the failed state of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the church infrastructure has not only been holding the fragile nation together, it set a precedent by gathering in the bishops from Burundi and Rwanda for a public Mass of reconciliation in Kinshasa, televised throughout the region.

"This is the type of witness only the Catholic church in Africa is able to give," Franciscan Fr. Michael Perry, the U.S. bishops' point man on Africa, told NCR.

Said Catholic Relief Services executive director Ken Hackett, "When we look at what the bishops of Congo Brazzaville have done with their statement on extractive resources [see related story], knowing the extractive industries are not transparent, we see fruits of the past seven or eight years of the increasingly closer relationship between many African bishops' conferences and the U.S. conference."

Behind Perry and Hackett is a decade-long upsurge in U.S. Catholic collaboration with African bishops and church institutions, supplying technical assistance, a supporting moral voice on key policy issues, money and, periodically, personnel.

Visiting bishops

The relationship includes a steady stream of African bishops visiting the United States, and American bishops heading to Africa. At ground level, the commitment to Africa is apparent in the numbers: Two-thirds of all CRS U.S-citizen employees work in Africa. U.S. diocesan ties to Africa are strengthened as, for example, St. Cloud, Minn., twins with Homa Bay, Kenya, and Trenton, N.J., links up with Kasana-Luweero, Uganda.

Africa's political security needs are regional and local. Equally pressing are African nations' economic and health requirements. HIV/AIDS is pandemic; other diseases run rampant. Malnutrition in many places is a constant, and basic services are lacking almost everywhere.

The issues the Bush administration represents--open markets, freer access to African oil and energy resources (already supplying 20 percent of U.S. needs), support of regimes and corporate practices that are not transparent--are precisely those that African and U.S. Catholics have strong views on and fastened on to during the Bush tour.

In the wake of the Bush trip--to Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Nigeria and Uganda--the African churches were expected to look afresh to their U.S. counterpart, to ensure that the voice of the African people in need, and not just ruling elites and corporate interests, are heard in Washington's corridors of power.

In recent years, the U. …