By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
The role of interfaith action in addressing the growing challenges facing Africa amid the Covid-19 pandemic was the focus of a virtual forum of religious leaders, ministers, experts and representatives of African intergovernmental policymaking institutions on Monday.
The virtual forum - the last of six regional meetings – was aimed at producing policy recommendations for the global G20 Interfaith forum which will be reflected in proposals to be submitted to world leaders at the G20 Summit slated for October in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The participants examined religious and policy responses to the ongoing pandemic, as well as the multi-layered effects of Covid-19 on existing developmental challenges facing the continent. Some challenges identified include climate change, hunger, poverty and the loss of livelihood due to Covid-19.
“We are living through a time of crisis: the Covid-19 pandemic continues to be on the minds of both religious leaders and policymakers,” said Faisal Bin Muaammar, KAICIID Secretary-General, adding that the pandemic has not only affected the daily lives of many, but has exposed other more serious challenges.
The 2020 G20 Interfaith forum is co-organised by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), the G20 Interfaith Forum Association, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), and the National Committee for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (NCIID).
The forum’s participants drew attention to Africa’s problem of food insecurity despite its rich natural resources, highlighting how the Covid-19 pandemic poses a major threat to Africa achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 2 of Zero Hunger by 2030. Of particular concern was the significant negative impact of environmental degradation and the locust swarms wreaking havoc in East Africa.
Pointing out that misuse, not lack of resources, is responsible for the hunger crisis, the General Secretary of the Organisation of African Instituted Churches, Reverend Nicta Lubaale said the challenge of food insecurity must be tackled because it is a “scandal of hunger in the midst of plenty.” He urged all religious groups to “engage in direct support for people in hunger and poverty.”
In the same vein, Director of Faith for Earth, Dr. Iyad Abumoghli encouraged conservationists to collaborate with faith communities to implement more value-based sustainable exploitation of the continent’s natural resources. This, Abumoghli noted, will help prevent hunger and food insecurity especially since faith-based communities comprise “the largest social organisations in Africa.”
Debt relief for African countries
The indebtedness of many African nations was also a point of concern for the forum’s participants. Many expressed fears that without debt relief, some countries would find it difficult to secure resources to combat Covid-19, resulting in the exposure of millions to infection, hunger and poverty.
In this regard, Martin Pascal Tine, Senegal’s Ambassador to the Holy See, called for joint action by faith communities to lobby policymaking institutions to intensify debt relief efforts. Reiterating this call, Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja, Cardinal John Onaiyekan added that faith communities should be engaged in ensuring that capital is directed towards public welfare and the sections of society in most need. The forum’s participants also expressed their conviction that faith communities need to be involved in the search for solutions to Africa’s challenges, especially as they can step in when public institutions are overstretched.
Among the other issues discussed was the pandemic’s effect on religious communities including the cancellation of pilgrimages, restrictions on religious gatherings and the cancellation of religious festivities.
Though concerned that Africa has only one G20 country - South Africa – the participants expressed hope that the G20 leaders would take their deliberations into account and, according to Cardinal Onaiyekan, speak “to Africa, if not about Africa.”