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Mission in Ethiopia

Mission in Ethiopia


Ethiopia is one of biggest country in the horn of Africa 435,071 square miles (1,126,829 sq.km) with about 84,320,987 people (2012 estimate). It is a multilingual and multiethnic society of around 80 tribes, with the two largest being the Oromo and Amhara.  Oromo 34.5%, Amhara 26.9%, Somalie 6.2%, Tigray 6.1%, Sidama 4%, Guragie 2.5%, Walaita 2.3%, Hadiya 1.7%, Affar 1.7%, Gamo 1.5%, Gedeo 1.3%, other 11.3% (2007 Census). There are 83 major languages and more than 200 dialects in Ethiopia. Amharic and Oromifa are the dominant languages spoken and understood by the majority of the Ethiopian population. The official language of the federal government of Ethiopia has been Amharic. It is used as the official state language while English is used as an official foreign language. Ethiopia received Christianity in the 4th Century around 316 AD. It has been predominantly a Christian country with Orthodox 43.5%, Muslim 33.9%, Protestant 18.6%, traditional 2.6%, Catholic 0.7%, other 0.7% (2007 Census). It was among the first major empire in the world to officially adopt Christianity as a state religion in the 4th century (324 AD). The Coptic Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) has been the dominant Church in Ethiopia. Although majority are Christians, a third of the population is Muslim. Hence there is a great impact of the Islamic faith in Ethiopia. The country has the site of the first Hijira in Islamic history, the oldest Muslim settlement in Africa at Negash and the 4th holy city of Islam at Harar. A substantial population of Ethiopian Jews (the Falashas) resided in Ethiopia until the 1980s but since then they have gradually emigrated to Israel. The country is also the spiritual homeland of the Rastafari movement  who have a strong spiritual affiliation with the late Emperor Haile Selasse. During the Scramble for Africa, Ethiopia was the only African country beside Liberia that retained its sovereignty as a recognized independent country, and was the first among the only four African countries who were members of the League of Nations.  It is one of the founding members of the United Nations (UN). Ethiopia contains 9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country.

The Spiritan mission has greatly contributed to life of the people in Ethiopia right from the hard moments of famine when thousands of people died due to the long drought periods. Ethiopia underwent a series of famines from 1970s and 1980s, exacerbated by adverse geopolitics and civil wars.  Nevertheless many survived because of the Spiritan intervention in collaboration with the support of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and other humanitarian agencies. For over now 40 years, the Spiritans have been ministering in places where poverty, poor livelihood, and drought are in extreme, especially among the nomads (Borana and Hamar).

The Spiritan Presence in Ethiopia

The modern-day presence of the Spiritans in Ethiopia began in 1972 when two groups, Irish and Dutch/American, arrived separately. There had been a brief war-time Spiritan presence by Frs. Kevin Devenish (Pro-vicar apostolic of Addis Ababa), Fitzsimons, Watkins, Jim Giltenan and James Grennan (Harar Seminary) from 1943 to 1947. The Dutch/American group began their mission in Dhaddiim, Borana. The mission in Borana focused from the beginning on education as well as first evangelisation. A medical programme was added in 1981, when the Medical Missionaries of Mary joined the mission.  The Irish began in Arba Minch, Gamo Gofa in 1972. By the 1980s, there were over twenty missionaries made up volunteers, Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa, Medical Missionaries of Mary and Spiritans running five missions – Arba Minch, Chencha, Saula, Jinka and Dimeka. From its earliest days the mission in Gamo Gofa followed a policy of working through local government and local community structures to support education, agriculture, livelihood, water & sanitation, health etc... Hence Spiritans have no schools or clinics of their own. A second distinguishing feature of Gamo Gofa mission has been the ecumenical work with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC).   In 1983 a joint Orthodox/Catholic First Evangelisation programme began in Hamar. Arba Minch has a small vibrant Catholic Parish, made up mostly of University and other third-level students, coming from other parts of Ethiopia.

In 2001 the two groups combined and became the Spiritan international group of Ethiopia. In 2008 the group became a Foundation of Ethiopia. At present there are 12 Spiritan missionaries from 8 different countries who are serving in the Spiritan mission of Ethiopia (Ireland, Ethiopia, India, Holland, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and France). 6 Spiritans are presently running 3 missions in Borana, Awassa Vicariate (i.e. Dhaddiim, Yabbello, and Dubluq); 4 Spiritans are running 2 missions in Gamo Gofa and South Omo, Soddo Vicariate (i.e. Arba Minch and Dimeka respectively); then 2 Spiritans are doing special ministries in the Archdiocese of Addis Ababa. Following the 2011 Foundation Chapter resolutions, the Foundation of Ethiopia has just finished laying down its five year strategic plan and is now at the implementation stage where all the Spiritan works in Ethiopia are under one Spiritan Board.

The Spiritan Strategic Plan of the Foundation of Ethiopia 2013 - 2017

This strategic plan focuses on principles based on good practice in development and pastoral work that would guide all the Spiritan works in Ethiopia for the next five years. After going through the SWOT analysis the group has redefined and articulated its Vision, Mission and Core Values.

The vision of the Foundation of Ethiopia is: build “A society where everyone, especially the disadvantaged, have life and have it to the full.”  The mission of the Foundation is: The proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom of God, especially to the most disadvantaged, through pastoral and development work.” The means to achieve this mission includes: Preaching of the gospel and founding new Churches, Participation in development and social work in line with our Spiritan calling, Building committed and responsible Christian communities and taking an active role in all that may assist Christians of any confession to meet or to join together as one. Good planning for promotion of vocations ministry, Training for ministries and for missionary and religious life, then finally building our life in fraternal and praying community. The programme which will emerge from this plan will be guided by four key values: Living our faith with respect and openness towards other peoples’ culture, customs and beliefs; Solidarity with the most disadvantaged; Application of highest possible levels of professionalism; and Working in collaboration with the government, churches, local communities and donors.

Strategic Objectives: In the light of the identified strategic issues, the following Strategic Objectives have been set for 2013 – 2017; To have one programme for all the development and pastoral works and ministries of the Spiritans in Ethiopian Foundation; To have a funding strategy for the programme and ensure continuity of the work; To develop and implement a pastoral policy and a development policy that will guide all the Spiritan works of the Foundation.

Strategic Activities: The programme will carry out the following key activities from 2013 to 2017: Forming the Spiritan Board for the Foundation of Ethiopia: Ongoing monitoring and evaluation of all the Spiritan works in Ethiopia. Setting up a Finance and Fund-raising Subcommittee for screening the proposals and expand the funding base of the Foundation. Putting in place good systems and structures for the management of finance in Borana – these  structures already exist in Gamo Gofa and South Omo;  Carrying out annual audits on all projects; Finding out the size and value of current local contributions and based on these findings setting targets for local contributions for 2017; Building the capacity of the Borana group in proposal development; Submitting more proposals for institutional funding; Carrying out a feasibility study on the setting up of a website. Develop Information Technology that will help in fund-raising and running of our projects.

The Action plan has been drawn and Strategic targets have already been set. The Spiritan pastoral and development policies have been developed considering the two vicariates where the Spiritans are working. All the risks involved in the implementation of this plan have been assessed and risks management strategies have been identified. The leadership, roles, objectives and membership of the board have been well defined. The rule and regulations that govern this board have been put in place. All the checks and controls needed for administration of this programme have been considered.

Principles to Guide the Development and Pastoral Work of the Foundation Putting in place one Spiritan Programme with one Spiritan Board. Flexibility, mobility and adaptability to undertake new responsibilities, new missions and new realities are our priority. Ensuring continuity of our works where possible, looking critically at the past to plan and build for the future, personnel capacity building and networking with other NGOs, donors etc. Fostering and recruiting local personnel.

This strategic plan aims at implementing the following current good practices in development: Support communities to identify and take action to address identified needs. Planning for the sustainability or continuity of our works and setting good standards of management, professionalism, accountability and transparency. Teamwork approach including partnership, relationship and collegiality is our common practice.  The plan also emphasizes the following current good practices in pastoral work: Promotion of unity and work with other religions. Knowing and respecting the people, their culture, language and beliefs.  Focusing on areas where people have hardly heard the Good News and generally difficult. Keeping fidelity to pastoral guidelines of the universal Church and of the local Church must be considered. Bearing witness to the Gospel and sharing our faith while participating in the social life and needs of the people.

Current Apostolic Activities of the Foundation

The Spiritan current activities consider a holistic approach thus includes both pastoral and development works. In Borana the Spiritans carry out primary evangelisation as well as ongoing faith building and sacramental activities for those who are Catholics or thinking of becoming Catholics. On the development side Spiritans manage three schools owned by the Catholic Church at Dhadhiim, Dhoqolle and Dharittoo. They also run two hostels in Yabello and Dubluq for boarding students who come from afar. In partnership with the Sisters of Charity they run a Kindergarten program, a health centre, primary health care and other outreach health programmes.   As well as these key activities Spiritans render physical, technical and at times financial support to the local communities in their development efforts, such as village road construction, water development and excavation activities, food security and food distribution projects etc.

In Gamo Gofa and South Omo the Spiritans are ministering in the Catholic Parish of Arba Minch where there is a University Chaplaincy, catechesis and sacramental activities for parishioners and the would-be Catholics. There is a large ecumenical programme with the Orthodox Church which supports the work of preachers in communities in Gamo Gofa as well as a joint Orthodox/Catholic First Evangelisation Programme, primarily among the Hamar people in South Omo. Spiritans have been part and parcel of the local Inter Religious Forum in Arba Minch and have as well been participating in activities of the Ethiopian Bible Society which embraces the Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic Churches. On the side of development in Gamo Gofa and South Omo, the Spiritans run the Integrated Community Development Program (ICDP). This program covers the following areas in support of; Education, Water and Sanitation, Food security and Livelihoods improvement, Health outreach projects etc. Other activities in Arba Minch include; the prison ministry, supporting the needy orphans and widows, hostel for the nomads of Hamar poor students etc.

In Addis Ababa, Spiritans are involved in special ministries such as carrying out research on Ethiopian religious tradition and ecumenism, working with the Ethiopian Episcopal Liturgical committee for the Ethiopian (GEEZ) Liturgy, administration of one Catholic School as a principal, teaching in the major Seminary etc. The Addis presence also offers logistical support to the programmes in Gamo Gofa/South Omo and Borana.  

Challenges facing the Mission in Ethiopia

Economy Structures: There is a situation of generalized poverty in the country enhanced by natural calamities, economic and political systems, poor resource management and current globalized financial crisis.  The gap between the rich and the poor is very big in Ethiopia. There is a great scarcity of jobs. The cost of living is growing higher yet the incomes are stagnant. Donors abroad are tired of helping and afraid for their own finances. Some also complain about the standards of accountability and poor reporting systems. It seems comparatively easy to obtain foreign help for socio-developmental projects but very difficult to obtain it for pastoral and spiritual projects.   

The Catholic Church in Ethiopia is considered as NGO hence many people see it as a foreign body that is rich because it depends from outside donors. This is particularly challenging in the case of the presence of foreign missionaries. The people are always at the receiving end and this creates a dependency syndrome. The “model” of Church is the one of a “club” for the benefit of its members. Christians tend to look at themselves as “clients or beneficiaries” of the Church. They often ask what the Church has done for them not for what they can do for the Church. Local donations to the Church, offertory and church collections are negligible.  The notion of “free and voluntary work” for the Church is very limited. All are asking for formal salaries, allowances contracts, per Diems etc. The understanding of “Lay Ministries”, recommended after Vatican II, is very difficult in this context. The local Christian communities are not fully aware of their responsibilities in terms of contributing to the growth of their Church.

We have a limited number of Lay Catholics who are competent and professionals to contribute or give advice to our works. The Catholic Church is by and large depending too much on foreign help from agencies and donors. There are very few initiatives towards income generating projects because we are afraid of paying high taxes coupled by heavy government restrictions. The very good examples of the Catholic Church in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya in this field of setting income generating projects for the church is almost impossible in Ethiopia  because of the government policy.    

According to the demands of the mission in Ethiopia the Ecclesiastical qualification of Theology and Philosophy are inadequate. There is a great need for our missionaries to have secular professional qualifications say in Social & Development work, Education, Finance & Management, Medical & Health etc... This will make them competent and capable to meet the standards required for the services rendered and also useful in securing the work permits from the government. Missionaries can only enter in Ethiopia and get work permits as teachers, social workers, doctors or nurses etc. other than presenting themselves as evangelizers, religious or priests.

Ecological structures are the ways in which a society responds to the challenges of the environment. The drought brings periodical famine in many regions of Ethiopia. So far the normal response is to provide food, which is a necessary response for the effects of the drought but there hasn’t been a great response in order to prevent these effects through projects of irrigation or projects of food storage (“cereal banks”) for times of crisis or even look for alternative cultivations of more resistant crops to the drought. A great area is gradually becoming semi-arid. Uncontrolled grazing of animals is a common practice especially among the nomads. Forests have been cut down; 30% of Ethiopia was under forests in 1960s but at present only 8% is covered by forests. Thus A forestation is a great necessity. Soil erosion and soil degradation have become very rampant; hence crop and animal production are declining. Yet the population in Ethiopia is rapidly growing at a fast rate. The government is promoting foreign investors to invest in Agriculture but for economic/commercial targets which can be exploitive in the long run. In this crisis, education on environment protection and soil conservations is necessary and it is not always given to the people at the grassroots. Although the Churches have been positive instruments in this educational campaign, a collective effort is urgently needed.

Political Structures: The Ethiopian government considers the Catholic Church in Ethiopia as NGO. Only the Orthodox Church and the Muslim faith have been given the legal religious status by the government.  We are a religious body recognized only “de facto” by the government and only for social and development purposes. We cannot call freely foreign missionaries for pastoral activities as the other African countries surrounding us do. Our foreign missionaries have to be assigned to the social and development sector and securing work permits for them is very hard and bureaucratic. When they come in the country they are often living in anxiety and fear every year during the renewal of their work permits and resident cards which depends on the renewal of the projects agreements with the government. The process is always too long, demanding and bureaucratic; with a lot of restrictions and regulations.

Although at the grassroots the local communities appreciate our good work and have good relation with us, at highest levels of the government the relations are not clear whether the Federal authorities acknowledge the importance of having missionaries in Ethiopia; this is still questionable! Some of the government policies have been unfavorable to the Catholic Church. We are de facto under "bureaucratic persecution". The presence of Lay Catholics in the world of politics seems to be totally extinguished only very few who hold key posts in government offices.  Being a Church of minorities, our strategy tends to be defensive and preventive and is oriented not to disappoint the authorities and other big Churches that have political influence. In this context the evangelical freedom which is required for the denunciation of social sins and the promotion of justice is considerably reduced. The Truth makes us free but we do not seem to be free enough to proclaim the truth because of the restrictive government policies. (Cf. The Church we want to be, No. 34; See also: Instrumentum Laboris, No. 44-45). We are not allowed to talk about politics, security, human rights and gender issues.

It is not a secret that in today’s Ethiopia, politics has become de facto linked to ethnicity. This is a threat that tends to divide not only the people but the Church itself. It does not help to attempt to impose uniformity without being able to build up unity in the mutual respect of diversity as it has been already stressed.  (Cf. The Church we want to be, No. 39 and 49).

There is no religion of state but Islam, is mentioned specifically in the Constitution and some of their tribunals of “sharia” are officially recognized by the government. The link with Islam is not  so much political but  of an economic order because of the enormous investments done by Arab countries in Ethiopia, either officially or by proxy, using the names of private businessmen of Arab origin but Ethiopian nationality.  The Protestant Churches are not recognized as Churches but they are legally registered as associations under the Association Act and must renew their registration periodically. The Catholic Church is not legally recognized as a religious body, it is not registered and operates as a de facto recognized institution, especially now with the official recognition of the Ethiopian Charity Society Association (ECUSTA).

Social Structures:  We witness to a progressive decline of the parental authority and of the family cohesion in the Ethiopian society.  To this process contributes no little the fact that within the same family there are different religious options.  Many families have been disrupted by the past wars and also by the scourge of AIDS.  As a consequence, the number of orphans in Ethiopia has considerably increased.  The phenomenon of the “street children”, practically unknown in Ethiopia twenty years ago, poses today a serious challenge to the society and to the Church. 

There is an exclusivist approach to the tribe as the only social point of reference leads to antagonisms, rivalries and wars that destroy the peace and unity of a nation. Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic society and the division in federal regions tends to enhance more the difference than the common national unity and identity.  This situation cannot be ignored by the Church in its mission of promoting justice, peace and reconciliation. (Cf. The Church we want to be, No. 53)  Tribalism is a virus and the evangelizers themselves are not immune to it.

The Ethiopian society is faced with high rate of rural – urban migration.  Good facilities are attracting the people from the rural areas to towns. The arable land is becoming too small for the family in the rural areas. This factor and the  fact of repeated and periodical droughts as well as  the lack of communications and other social facilities in the countryside favors  a “rural-urban exodus”  and increases the numbers and size of towns.  This “exodus” is not only geographical but psychological and cultural.  They have aspirations and if they cannot fulfill them inside their country they do not hesitate to go abroad and to establish themselves there. The exodus is not only internal to Ethiopia (Cf. The Church we want to be, No. 44).

The young generations in Ethiopia belong to the so-called “digital generation”, they are more open and eager to changes than to be the guardians of any tradition.  They are politically more mature and also more critical of their own country and of their own religious confessions and groups.  It is impressive to visibly verify the fact that the churches are still full but of adult men and especially women of a certain age.  Young generations ask for more active participation in the liturgy, a participation adapted to their new cultural approach.   

On the other hand the influence of foreign cultures, either western or from Arab countries, in present-day Ethiopia is visible and considerable. Through the media, particularly the Internet and the TV, which are becoming accessible to the great majority, the scale of values in Ethiopian cultures are seriously shaken.  In particular, moral and religious values are challenged and this constitutes a challenge to evangelization.  Here again, the globalization factor is not always exerting a positive influence on the Ethiopian cultures.

Culturally and Religiously, Ethiopia is traditionally a patriarchal society. Women have been marginalized a lot and many are still at a level of domestic workers in the family. This is very predominant among the pastoralists. Lay ministries for women are rare. Women promotion Centres are often focused on technical or financial formation only (Cf. “The Church we want to be” Nos. 43, 58). Together with other social changes a great change is being operated in the position and role of women in the Ethiopian society.  Women not only have full access to all levels of education but a number of them often excel and occupy key posts in finances, politics and administration today.  The UNICEF conducts a worldwide campaign of awareness on the importance of women education and promotion. Although Ethiopia has a very high birth-rate the infant and maternal mortality rate is also very high (over 8%). Only a minority of Ethiopians are born in hospitals; most of them are born in rural households. Ethiopia has a relatively low average life expectancy of 58 years. A number of people are still holding to bad traditional/customary practices especially among the pastoralists.