GSF project for migrants and displaced persons in Addis Ababa GSF project for migrants and displaced persons in Addis Ababa 

Easter in Ethiopia: Hoping for peace and rebirth

Ethiopia’s small Catholic community celebrates the Resurrection of Christ on 16 April, in line with the calendar of the Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Church. The head of the Socio-Pastoral Commission of the Archdiocese of Addis Ababa and a Salesian Sister talk about their hopes for true peace in Tigray, and about an inter-congregational network project promoted by the Global Solidarity Fund that assists refugees and displaced persons.

By Alessandro Di Bussolo – special correspondent in Addis Ababa

In Ethiopia, the small flock of Catholics that accounts for less than 2 per cent of the population, will celebrate Easter on the same day as the large Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has more than 32 million faithful, over 43 per cent of the population. Hence 16 April, a week later than the other Latin-rite Catholics.

Ethiopia is the largest country in the Horn of Africa. Two years of civil war in the northern Tigray region ended with a peace accord signed in November 2022. This year Christian Easter is celebrated a few days before the end of Muslim Ramadan, which falls on 21 April.  “Since this year our Lenten fast coincides with the Muslim fast of Ramadan,” Fr Petros Berga, Head of the Socio-Pastoral Commission of the Archdiocese of Addis Ababa, and apostolic visitor for Ethiopian Catholics in Europe tells us, “last Sunday evening, the Addis Ababa municipal administration organised a dinner for all Muslim and Christian leaders together. Thank God, there is good cooperation between the religious communities in Ethiopia”.

The long fast towards 'Fasika', the Coptic Orthodox Easter

Fr Petros explains that, following the tradition of Fasika, the Coptic Orthodox Ethiopian Easter, Catholics also observe 55 days of fasting during Lent, a period called Hudade or Abye Tsome. "One abstains totally from any kind of meat and dairy product,” he says. “According to tradition, one only eats vegetables, cereals, lentils, peas, fruit and varieties of vegetable stew accompanied by injera. In some areas they also fast from fish”. During the fast, the first meal of the day, he further explains, “is eaten after 3 pm, except on Saturdays and Sundays, when a meal is allowed after morning Mass. On the Easter vigil, the faithful go to church for a celebration that starts at 6 pm and ends at 2 am.  Everyone goes home to break their fast with chicken or lamb, slaughtered the night before, after 6 pm”.

Women and children at the mission for internally displaced persons in Zway
Women and children at the mission for internally displaced persons in Zway

The Interfaith Council of Addis Ababa and aid to migrants

During this Lenten period, various ecumenical initiatives have been taking place in Ethiopia, “such as common prayers and charity activities organised by different churches: Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical".

Especially in the current Ethiopian context, underlines Fr Berga, “the witness of unity and solidarity among Christians is very important to promote peace, reconciliation and solidarity among peoples”.

In Addis Ababa, the capital which counts over four million inhabitants, and is where all the country's religious institutions are based, an Interfaith Council has been created. A Council that, the head of the archdiocese's Socio-Pastoral commission goes on to explain, together with the municipal administration, “also organises solidarity activities for the needy of all faiths, including followers of traditional religions”. Activities reach out beyond the capital city and include projects for internally displaced persons who have fled areas where there are still armed clashes, for migrants from neighbouring countries and for 'returning' refugees. These, he explains, are Ethiopians who have sought a better life in Saudi Arabia, Yemen or other Arab nations and have been forcibly repatriated or have returned after a negative experience. With more than one million 'international' migrants accepted (according to the UN), Ethiopia ranks second, after Uganda, among the host countries in the region. And there are more than 2.5 million internally displaced persons.

The Global Solidarity Fund pilot project

For these people in dire need, the Global Solidarity Fund (GSF), an innovative alliance of religious congregations, private companies and international organisations, has been running a pilot project since the end of 2020 involving Salesians (Daughters of Mary Help of Christians), Ursuline Sisters, Missionaries of Charity and Jesuits (through the Jesuit Refugee Service), coordinated by the Archdiocesan Socio-Pastoral Commission. 

Each congregation, with its own specificities, has a role in this 'consortium' or inter-congregational network, which has so far helped more than 1,500 beneficiaries to acquire, through vocational training, skills to enter the local labour market, either by being employed in a company or by starting their own micro-business.

Fr Petros Berga and the apostolic nuncio in Ethiopia visit a business funded by micro-credit
Fr Petros Berga and the apostolic nuncio in Ethiopia visit a business funded by micro-credit

The Nigat Centre for mothers and children

"In this way, together, we are transforming the lives of many refugees, internally displaced persons and returnees," Fr Berga says, "as we prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection, we also think of moments of light. People on the move carry with them a deep hope and are always trying to get up and start again. If they receive help, they have within them the hidden power to change their lives and those of their families. Many young people aspire to a better life and are fleeing conflict situations and need assistance. This project is a life-transforming gift for them".

For this Easter, as in the past, in the Nigat Centre in Addis Ababa, run by the Missionaries of Charity, where refugee girls, abandoned by their partners, are taken in, "there will be a moment of meeting and celebration, for the mothers and their children," says Girma Anto Muane, head of the GSF project for the Mother Teresa Sisters, "also for those who live in the shelters we run”.

Hope for reconciliation with Tigray

Looking at the situation in Tigray, where almost 500,000 people have died in two years of war, and in the areas to the west of the country, on the border with Sudan and South Sudan, where there have been clashes with victims in recent days, Fr Petros hopes that the feast of Easter "will bring hope and healing for the people who have suffered so much because of conflict situations". 

After the signing of the peace agreement, 'people look forward to a new future of reconciliation. We also pray for conflict situations in other parts of the world, especially in Ukraine. May the power of the Lord's resurrection transform our world with its lasting peace, so that we can witness that the resurrection of Christ is healing our world".

Rebirth for migrants

Finally, we go to Zway, a town on the lake of the same name, a 3-hour drive south of Addis Ababa, where the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians have a mission with a Vocational Training Centre. The director is Sr Nieves Crespo, a Spaniard from Madrid, who has been in Ethiopia since 2002. She is also in charge of the GSF project in the capital.

Sr Nieves explains the congregation has six missions in Ethiopia and that their main commitment is education, with a preference for the poor.

The mission of Zway, in the Oromia region, she notes, caters for more than 2,600 children from kindergarten to vocational schools. It includes a nutrition programme and many hungry children come to receive care, education and food from the villages.

“Easter for us is hope and new life. And in a context where we are working together with few Catholics, with many Orthodox and many Muslims, Easter we try to live it, we try to prepare it not only on the level of what we do in Church, among Catholics but also with all these young people and children,” she says.

Sister Nieves at the Zway mission
Sister Nieves at the Zway mission

Sr Nieves also speaks about a “truly Salesian” practice that takes place in the weeks before Easter which the sisters called 'Good Morning',  “in which we try to prepare for this journey towards Easter, always bearing in mind that we have with us so many Muslims who are currently experiencing Ramadan.”

“In our vocational schools, especially the one in Addis Ababa, 17 young mothers live with us, each with a child. She adds that “They are very poor, so we try to share everything with them. The women study in the vocational training school, and we invite them to participate in our Catholic celebrations, even though they come from other religions.”

She notes that Ethiopia is a land where many cultures and religions live together, and where Catholics,  Orthodox, Protestants, and Muslims try to share common moments.

For example, Sr Nieves explains, “During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we had meetings that we Catholics almost always organise in the parish, moments of prayer together. Now, at Easter time, the Orthodox Church, which is very present in the country, and whose presence is historical, has its own special rite for Fasika, the Easter of the Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Church.  Protestants also have their traditions”.

She notes that because the Catholics in the country follow the Orthodox calendar, Easter is not celebrated this Sunday, but will be a week later, to unify the moments of this great feast of all Christians.

At the same time, she adds, Ramadan is very close this year: “We will celebrate Easter on 16 April and the Muslims on 21 April, Friday will conclude Ramadan. And even though we cannot have specific times of prayer with them, it is nice to see how we are all together in this time of penance”.

“They have this very strong fast, and we have our Lent. So, despite our different religious traditions and faiths, we all believe in a better future and place our hope in the truth,” she adds.

Sr Nieves and some of the children assisted by the project
Sr Nieves and some of the children assisted by the project

A future of peace

Sr Nieves also reflects on the conflict that has brought death and destruction to Ethiopia in recent years.

“It is true that, thank God, the situation in Tigray has now improved, but also because before it was too dramatic. The war has stopped. But the news I have from our sisters who are at the mission in Adua, tells us that there are many refugee camps, there is hunger and after these more than two years of war, there is no more hope among the young people. Because so many have gone off to fight and so many others have now been out of school for three years,” she says.

She adds that also in the Oromia region and in other parts of the country the situation is very unstable.

“On the border with Eritrea and Sudan, there are still deaths almost every day,” she says, asking for prayers that this path may truly be a path to peace.

She places her hope in the peace of Jesus on the cross and expresses hope that the young people and the children will bring “true light, true hope,” as He enlightens us to open paths to the future.

Resurrection and the GSF pilot project

Sr Nieves goes on to talk about how “resurrection and hope” are experienced every day in the GSF-funded centre in Addis Ababa, which welcomes “so many young women who have suffered so much, and who come to us through the Sisters of Mother Teresa”.

Thanks to this project, she explains, they receive three months of assistance from the Missionaries of Charity and are helped to find a place to live with their child and receive an education.

“Thanks to this project we also manage to find each of them a job, which changes their lives and is a source of hope,” she says.

Some of the mothers and babies assisted at the Nigat Center in Addis Ababa
Some of the mothers and babies assisted at the Nigat Center in Addis Ababa

Hanan’s story

“I can tell the story of Hanan, a girl who arrived in Addis Ababa four years ago when she was only 15 years old. She came from a very poor family and arrived to look for a job. She ended up being cheated on and found herself pregnant and on the streets.  So she went to Mother Teresa's nuns who helped her to accept having this child and Hanan then came to us. She lived in our mission in Addis Ababa, at the Mary Help College, with the other mothers and the other children, for the six months of the cutting and sewing course and afterwards, we managed, as with so many others, to find a job for her. Now she lives in a rented house with three other women, very close to our mission, and every morning at six o'clock she gets up, brings her baby, because we also have this care service, and goes to work. In the evening at 6.30, she comes back, takes her baby with the other three women and goes back to her little house. It is very nice to see the difference: when this girl came to the Missionaries of Charity she had no future, she had no hope, and she didn't even love her child, because it was one more problem for her. Instead, now she has dignity and believes in herself. This is clear also in her way of dressing, of taking care of herself and her child. She has completely changed, the way she thinks about her child, thinks about her future. She is truly a girl who has gone from night to day, a girl who at this moment is full of hope. Thanks to this work together, in a network, that we manage to create in Addis Ababa, with this inter-congregational GSF project. It is indeed a reason for hope, a reason for Easter joy, a reason to give thanks to God because she has passed from death to life.”

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06 April 2023, 15:20