Ebola response shows vital role of religious leaders

People walk past a Caritas Ebola poster on Savage Street. Tommy Trenchard/Caritas

People walk past a Caritas Ebola poster on Savage Street. Tommy Trenchard/Caritas

“When there is a crisis, the international aid community tends to push away or sideline religious leaders and faith based organisations even though they have the key to solving the crisis,” said Fr. Peter Konteh from Caritas Freetown in Sierra Leone.

“Instead, the first port of call should be the religious leaders and faith based organisations who live and work on the ground. They need to be actively included in planning,” he said.

He was at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul on 24 May to reflect on the Ebola epidemic in his country and the role of faith leaders in tackling the crisis.

The Istanbul meeting is looking for new ways for governments, the private sector, the United Nations, aid agencies and faith-based organisations to better serve people in need. Pope Francis said in a message: “Let us hear the cry of the victims and those suffering. Let us allow them to teach us a lesson in humanity. Let us change our ways of life, politics, economic choices, behaviours and attitudes of cultural superiority.”

On the first day of the meeting, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila addressed the Special Session on the Religious Engagement.

“We in Caritas are convinced that an essential part of humanitarian assistance is to get people involved in their own development and to believe in their capacity to rebuild their lives and society. But we cannot achieve this with a one size fits all approach,” he said.

“General international cooperation must enable local organisations to lead humanitarian responses using their capacities including the wisdom of compassion and reconciliation coming from religious traditions.”

Faith leaders meeting at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. Credit: Patrick Nicholson/Caritas

Faith leaders meeting at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. Credit: Patrick Nicholson/Caritas

Fr. Peter Konteh said the Ebola response highlights why the current system needs reform and why religious leaders and faith-based organisations need a greater role.

“When Ebola broke out in Sierra Leone, people didn’t understand it. They thought it was witchcraft and didn’t accept the medical advice. They had lost faith in governments and in hospitals,” he said.

In Sierra Leone, the outbreak began slowly and silently, gradually building up to a burst of cases in late May and early June in 2014. Cases then increased exponentially.

“Christian and Muslim leaders came together to sensitize the people. Faith leaders found a way to explain the epidemic. Because of their role in communities, then they were listened to. We are present in every village, so we had the local presence to be able to reach them.”

“On something like burials, it was difficult to accept that people could not be present or could not touch the bodies. Faith leaders were able to overcome that by explaining that they would be present at the burials and that offered some comfort,” he said.

“How do you explain to a mother not to touch a sick husband or child. I faced the same situation. I was called to a house where the mother and father had died. There was a 4 year old child between them, extending their hands for help. We couldn’t touch them. We could just throw her food like she was some kind of animal. We called an ambulance, but it took 48 hours to arrive. By that time, she was dead. I have to live with that pain and guilt for the rest of my life that I could have done more.”

The immediate Ebola crisis is over, but people are still suffer from health problems. Caritas is supporting clinics that continue to give medical treatment, to help stigmatised people  reintegrate back into their communities and working with the large number of orphans.

Faith-based organisations like Caritas are making commitments in Istanbul, including supporting and ensuring the engagement of religious leaders and working across faiths.

“Some religious leaders were giving out the wrong messages – that Ebola was punishment for sin,” said Fr. Peter Konteh. “We had to work with Christian and Muslim leaders to counteract that message to give the appropriate medical advice. Christian and Muslim leaders by coming together was a symbol of unity. A symbol that there is one God.”

“The World Humanitarian Summit has been a wonderful expression of solidarity with those in need. It’s success very much depends on the outcomes being implemented. Action and words need to go together.”


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