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Catholic Church 'hopeful' for democracy in Sierra Leone, local bishop reports

News Editor

WAYNE - When Ernest Bai Koroma was sworn in as president of Sierra Leone in September, Bishop George Biguzzi could have smiled, feeling like a "founding father" of the modern era of the western African nation, which has been experiencing the rush of new democratic liberty.

In a nation that serves as a "model of religious tolerance," Koroma, a Methodist, with his Muslim vice president, has already convened parliament, assembled his cabinet and has recommitted himself to stamping out government corruption. He takes over for Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, president during and then immediately after a 10-year civil war that devastated the nation and ended in 2001. Korma is the first new president of the post-conflict era.

"The Catholic Church is hopeful," said Bishop Biguzzi of the Makeni Diocese, during a visit last month to the U.S., which included stops at the Xaverian Missionaries' Provincial House on Helene Court here and nearby Our Lady of the Valley Parish, a benefactor of one of the bishop's parishes [See sidebar story]. "I'm proud. We had free, transparent and peaceful elections, overseen by a former Catholic nun, Christiana Thorpe," he said.

In the late 1990s, Bishop Biguzzi went the extra mile for peace in his war-ravaged nation, putting his own life in danger. The Italian-born bishop, also a Xaverian, had facilitated peace talks out in the bush with rebels through an inter-religious council.

"I was sacred stiff. The rebels jumped me and held me prisoner twice," Bishop Biguzzi told The Beacon during his last trip to Wayne in 2006, one of many over the years. "They threatened to kill me."

The daring effort was a success and laid the groundwork of the peace that would allow for democracy to flourish in Sierra Leone. The rebels gave their arms to U.N. peacekeepers and were retrained for jobs. Catholic Relief Services, CARE, U.S. aid and the private sector have helped rebuild destroyed or damaged infrastructure and build 1,000 homes.

"There was noting left. We lost everything the Xaverians had built over 50 years," said Bishop Biguzzi, who fled to the neighbor to the north, Guinea. "The entire history of the diocese was affected. All our houses and churches were destroyed or looted. Tens of thousands of people were displaced and many lost their lives."

The mountainous, wooded region of Makeni Diocese covers half the land of northern Sierra Leone and is home to 1.7 million people, who are largely subsistence farmers. Bishop Biguzzi, a U.S. citizen, came to the nation in 1970 and was ordained head of the diocese, which has 20 parishes, about 20 years ago.

Since the war ended, religious groups have cultivated a sense of harmony and cooperation. About 90 percent of the country is Muslim, while Catholics make up to 5 percent. Today, Muslims are building 3,000 mosques, an action that has "challenged us Catholics. We too have to be just as active in presenting the true image of Jesus Christ," the bishop said.

At the end of his visit, Bishop Biguzzi implored for help with the ongoing efforts to rebuild impoverished Sierra Leone,  which "has not yet achieved significant development" and where "more than half the people live on less than a dollar a day."

"There is a great demand for chapels. We need support for our priests, seminarians, catechists and charitable institutions," the bishop said. "The Church is the beacon of hope. We are grateful to all those who wish to help us."

Sierra Leone bishop thanks OLV for continued support of poor African parish

WAYNE - Since 2001, Our Lady of the Valley (OLV) Parish here has been reaching across the Atlantic Ocean with generous hearts and wallets to help an impoverished neighbor a world away - Christ the King Parish of Binkolo in the West African nation of Sierra Leone. OLV has paid for chapels, schools and even "wheels," like the pick-up truck the "mission-minded" African parish recently received.

So Bishop Biguzzi of the Makeni Diocese, where Christ the King is located, stopped at OLV recently for Mass to say "thanks" for the foreign-model truck. OLV has maintained its long-standing commitment to Christ the King, which along with other parishes in the northern Makeni Diocese, continues rebuilding in the wake of a 10-year civil war that devastated the region.

"I thanked Our Lady of the Valley for the support over the years," said Bishop Biguzzi, a Xaverian Missionary priest, who visited OLV, while visiting in the U.S., which included a stop at the Xaverians' Provincial House on Helene Court near the parish. "I am grateful to be back home with friends who have an interest in what we are doing."
At the Mass, the 70-year-old Bishop Biguzzi updated OLV parishioners on Christ the King's rebuilding efforts. During his stay in Wayne, one of several over the years, the bishop also celebrated Mass at St. Michael Parish, Paterson.

"The people of Our Lady of the Valley responded well," said Father Daniel Murphy, pastor of the more than 2,300-family OLV, which has "tithed" almost $150,000 to Christ the King since 2001. "The bishop has so much enthusiasm for the missions."

OLV's commitment to Christ the King started in 2001, when it split the proceeds of its diocesan Prepare the Way campaign rebate with three beneficiaries, among them the nearby Xaverians, who have served as weekend assistants at the parish.

In turn Christ the King remains "mission minded" as it maintains 20 outlying chapels and 35 schools, provides for the area poor and donates to World Mission Sunday.
"Despite being poor themselves, our parishioners think of the poorer people," Bishop Biguzzi said.

- Michael Wojcik

West African bishops collaborate on historic document on Christian-Muslim relations

WAYNE - When the Catholic bishops of western Africa held their historic plenary assembly on Christian and Muslim understanding in October, these forward-thinking religious leaders decided to meet in a perfect location - Sierra Leone, which serves as "model of religious tolerance" for the rest of the world, according Bishop George Biguzzi of the Makeni Diocese there.

The Association of Episcopal Conferences of Anglophone West Africa gathered last month in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, to draft a groundbreaking communiqu} that explores many of the ways Christians and Muslims there can gain a better understanding of each other and can better work together. The bishops hailed from Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana and Nigeria.

"We want to open new doors in dialogue because we believe that this is the only way that we can truly cultivate respect for each other and together stand up for human dignity and peace," they state in the communiqu}.

Fresh from the assembly, Bishop Biguzzi spoke during a visit to the Xaverian Missionaries' Provincial House here about the communiqu}, which also looks at conflicts between the two religions.

In the document, the bishops assert that the two religious communities can collaborate on important outreaches, such as protecting the environment, building schools and clinics and protecting the sacredness of human life.

The bishops' discussions about inter-religious collaborations, which included Protestants and Muslims, felt comfortable in Sierra Leone, where Christians and Muslims have "easy relations." Many Muslim families send their children to Christian schools and allow them to choose their religion, said Bishop Biguzzi.

"We have an export more precious than diamonds - our religious tolerance," the bishop said.

- Michael Wojcik


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