Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel, 67, of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is primate of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church in communion with Rome.

Born in 1948, Berhaneyesus Souraphiel was ordained to the priesthood on July 4, 1976, and consecrated a bishop on Jan. 25, 1998. On Feb. 14, Pope Francis elevated him to the rank of cardinal. He is also a member of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches and of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral of Immigrants and Itinerants.

Bishop Tsegaye Keneni Derera, apostolic vicar of Soddo, will represent Ethopia and Eritrea at the 14th Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, taking place Oct. 4-25 in Rome. Bishop Markos Gebremedhin, apostolic vicar of Jimma-Bonga, was selected as an alternate if Bishop Derera is unable to serve.

Although he won’t be attending himself, Ethiopia’s metropolitan archbishop is promoting the value of marriage and the family through a campaign of prayer, a bilingual newsletter that includes prayers for the synod participants, and workshops for representatives of churches in his jurisdiction. These include pastoral coordinators, lay leaders, married couples, catechists, youth leaders and Catholic professionals.

In a recent email interview with the Register, Cardinal Souraphiel discussed the challenges facing the Church in Africa and the synod.


What is the state of the family in Africa, and how can Church leaders there be heard at the upcoming synod on the family?

The Church in Africa, as any other part of the world, is facing challenges. That is why the family needs guidelines on family issues. The African bishops met in Accra, Ghana, last month to speak with one voice and to make their concern for family heard in the forthcoming synod. The teaching of Christ and the traditional teaching of the Church on family should not be altered.

Families in Africa are facing challenges of poverty, migration and population growth. The farmers make up 80% of the total population, and farmers live in a subsistence farming system, where they cannot afford to educate their children. They lack health care, potable water and food to sustain their living, which affects the stability of family [life].

Migration is another challenge, where many young people leave the country in search of a better future elsewhere. In some parts of the country, the dead do not have young people to bury them. Some migrants die on the way, before they reach their country of destination. They could have earned a better living if they worked hard in their own country, and we encourage the young to remain in their country and look for possibilities to improve their living within the country.

Population growth is a challenge, as Ethiopia is the second-most populous country in Africa, with 96 million people. In order to control population growth, the government of Ethiopia is applying artificial methods of birth control, which is distributed in health institutions free of charge. It is not distributed in Catholic health institutions. The Catholic Church is aware of the problem and tries to reach the married and those preparing to get married to choose natural family planning (ovulation method) and abstain from [any] artificial method.


What is the current family situation in Ethiopia, from the Catholic perspective?

The Catholic Church in Ethiopia is a minority (1%), trying to practice Catholic family values, which are difficult to exercise due to secular media propaganda. The exact situation of the family is difficult to state, but it is undergoing enormous transformation. Catholic teaching is not respected in certain areas of family life and marriage, such as artificial natural family planning, cohabitation, divorce, abortion (although illegal, it is practiced in clinics) and same-sex unions (a recent phenomenon in cities, but it affects the whole society).


What are the issues that affect the Church in Africa that the Catholics in the West are not aware of?

In my opinion, polygamy, the communitarian aspect of marriage, dowries and love for posterity in Africa are some of the issues which the Church in the West may not be very familiar.

Today, the issues that affect families all over the world are more or less similar, such as globalization, poverty, mass-media propaganda against family values etc. … Because of social media, African families are embracing the Western family lifestyle. Africans living in big cities follow the Western practice on the issues of marriage, such as childbearing, the nuclear family, etc. However, the majority of the population (80%) living in rural areas is not yet familiar with Western culture.

In Africa, the population is still religious, and religion matters a lot. About 90% of the African population practices his or her own religion, Christians or Muslims, whereas in the West religious practice is on the decline.

Establishing marriage in traditional Africa is a celebration done in successive stages, from the time of courtship until childbearing. The upbringing of a child is the responsibility of the entire community and not of the couple [alone]. A child brought up in a community atmosphere has self-esteem and is ready to assume responsibility when he grows up. 

The issues of polygamy, taking more wives for the sake of having many children and to earn fame in society is another issue. We can combat polygamy, which is against the unity of marriage, through school education and strong catechesis. Young girls who completed secondary school education refuse to enter polygamous marriages, whereas girls who did not go to school easily join polygamous marriage. In some countries like Kenya, polygamy is allowed by the constitution, which is devastating legislation for the unity of marriage that has to be challenged by the religious leaders.

Another issue that affects African marriage is the dowry, or exchange of gifts, as compensation for the girl. The more dowry awarded, the more the girl will be respected by the new family; however, it impoverishes the family of the boy.


How can the Church retain its teaching on marriage, the family and human sexuality while reaching out to the marginalized?

The Church has to give marriage preparation to those who prepare for marriage. Those who have received proper marriage preparation succeed in their married life more than those who did not receive any preparation. … Well-organized, adequate marriage preparation is also an occasion to transmit the value of Christian marriage. Pastoral care for married couples is required. The Church, in her preparation for marriage, should not exclude any class. … The Church has to show compassion to those who feel they are marginalized. In my opinion, catechesis is so fundamental to Christian couples. Sometimes people are ignorant of basic Christian teaching on marriage. … Some divorced couples think that they can approach the Eucharist, which manifests the ignorance among Christians.


What is the state of Christian-Muslim relations and dialogue in your country?

All three monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — entered the country at their infancy stage and co-existed peacefully. Traditional Christian and Muslim relations were peaceful in the past; however, certain extremists are infiltrating to destroy peaceful co-existence between Christians and Muslims.

In Ethiopia, Christians make up 62% [of the population] and Muslims 33%; the rest follow traditional religion. At the moment, Christians and Muslims established a forum called the Interreligious Council of Ethiopia, which is active. At the moment, Christian-Muslim relations in Ethiopia are fairly good.


What has contributed to the success of the Church in Africa as a whole?

Evangelization, which took consideration of both social and spiritual needs of the citizens, contributed to maintain the Catholic faith in Ethiopia and in Africa in general.

In Eastern Africa, small Christian communities and, in Ethiopia, the so-called “spiritual associations” contributed to the success of evangelization. The missionary activities in the 20th century contributed to the foundation of the Church, which is now being taken up by the locals, who are ready to go among the first-evangelized countries. Popular devotions also contributed to maintaining faith in Africa.


What do you think can be done to stop the persecution of Christians in this part of the world?

Christians are not persecuted in Ethiopia, but some 30 young Ethiopian-Christian migrants in Libya were executed by extremists because they did not want to convert to Islam — rather, they died for their faith — and I hope it will not change Christian-Muslim relations in Ethiopia. They are Christian martyrs of today for their faith. It was a very sad tragedy, deplored by both Christians and Muslims. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Ethiopia condemned the terrorist act and asked the U.N. and A.U. [African Union] to act, so that such acts are not repeated again and the terrorists are brought to justice.


How can the Church in Africa, which is booming in number, best serve the New Evangelization? 

The clergy, the religious, the catechists (who are the backbone of evangelization) and the faithful need to work together for effective evangelization. The laity have to be capacitated in the evangelization mission of the Church in Africa. We have to empower the laity to play a greater active role in the evangelization ministry.


It is said that while the Church in Western countries is flagging, the Church in Africa is rapidly increasing — what is your reaction to this?

We have to thank the Lord for the growth of the Church in Africa, and we have to work hard, so that the Western secularized world does not engulf the African Church. Through mass media, our continent can easily be influenced by the Western culture. We have to work to keep African traditional, positive values from being influenced by Western culture.


What do you think the Church in the West can borrow from the Church in Africa?

The communitarian/extended family aspect is very important in Africa. People in Africa share together what they own in times of celebration and in times of sorrow. If there is a wedding, it is the feast of the whole community. If there is mourning, it is shared by the entire community.

Children are seen as a gift from God, and the responsibility of looking after children is the responsibility of the entire community. 

In Africa, people love to have many children who can cultivate land and continue posterity. A person with many children is respected in the eyes of the community. If bringing many children up is not a burden to the family and if the parents are able to educate their children, the upbringing of children according to their possibility is recommendable.

The elderly are respected in society, and they are not seen as a burden; people of wisdom play an important role in resolving disputes among its members. The elderly are trusted by society members.

Francis Njuguna writes from Nairobi, Kenya.