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Latest: Côte d’Ivoire city under fire


5:00 P.M. EST April 5, 2011

Bishop Benjamin Boni blesses the elements of Holy Communion at Jourdain United Methodist Church in Abidjan in  2008. With him are the Revs. Cynthia Harvey (left) and Isaac Bodje (right). A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
Bishop Benjamin Boni blesses the elements of Holy Communion at Jourdain United Methodist Church in Abidjan in 2008. With him are the Revs. Cynthia Harvey (left) and Isaac Bodje (right). A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose. View in Photo Gallery

LATEST: The United Methodist Church's radio station continued to play music today in a city where almost everything else had stopped. The citizens of Abidjan watched from the safety of their homes as news came out that a cease-fire was being negotiated between forces supporting the U.N.-recognized president, Alassane Ouattara, and people loyal to the sitting president, Laurent Gbagbo.

Gbagbo's refusal to relinquish power since being defeated in an election last fall has led to several months of violence, culminating in a full-blown battle in recent days for the country's largest city. News media reported that Gbagbo was negotiating his own departure from power, but other reports had him remaining defiant in his presidential palace. Gen. Philippe Mangou, the head of the army - and a United Methodist - along with other military leaders had reportedly directed troops to stop fighting. Mangou was widely reported to have sought asylum for his family last week with the South African ambassador.

An employee with The United Methodist Church said today that everything in the city had stopped. The price of food had almost doubled, and fuel and other commodities were in short supply. However, the church's radio station, The Voice of Hope, has been playing programmed music nonstop, even though the staff eventually had to leave the station late last week because of the fighting.

5:00 P.M. EST April 4, 2011

UPDATE: French and U.N. forces bombarded targets in Abidjan under the control of Laurent Gbagbo on April 4. The attacks were part of an effort to prevent pro-Gbagbo forces from using heavy weapons on the civilian population, news reports said. Meanwhile, more soldiers arrived in Côte d’Ivoire’s largest city to prepare for a final battle to oust Gbagbo, who has refused to relinquish the presidency since losing an election last November.

Bishop Benjamin Boni, leader of The United Methodist Church in Côte d’Ivoire, along with other members of his team had left the house where they had taken shelter late last week. They were safe, a bishop’s assistant said on the evening of April 4.

Abidjan is under a noon to 6 a.m. curfew, said the bishop’s assistant, who asked not to be named. The city is experiencing shortages of food and fuel, money is hard to obtain, and electricity is out in some areas, he said. Water also has been cut off, at least in some parts of the city.

“Pray for the people,” the assistant said.

The military barracks, presidential palace and presidential residence are some of the targets under bombardment. Forces supporting Gbagbo’s rival, Alassane Ouattara, control most of the city and the rest of the country. Ouattara has been recognized by the international community as the elected leader of the country after the presidential election.

5:00 P.M. EST April 1, 2011

As fighting intensified in Côte d’Ivoire’s largest city, the United Methodist bishop and other religious leaders met and agreed to continue working together for peace.

Bishop Benjamin Boni met March 31 with Muslim and Celestial Christian (a traditional African religion) leaders and with the Vatican’s representative to Côte d’Ivoire. The four agreed to bring more religious leaders together and make an appeal for peace.

“We have been working together for a long time,” Boni said in an April 1 telephone interview. A primary concern for the group has been ensuring that Côte d’Ivoire’s political crisis doesn’t become a religious one as well.

Gunfire could be heard outside the house where Boni, his wife and some of his staff were staying. He expressed faith in God and hope for his country but also concern about the violence and the impact of an embargo that has blocked medical supplies from reaching Côte d’Ivoire.

“God is wonderful,” he said, “but many, many people have died.”

Church staff find havens

Soldiers supporting the U.N.-recognized president, Alassane Ouattara, have taken control of most of Abidjan, the commercial capital of the country, but fighting continued with loyalists of the sitting president, Laurent Gbagbo. Ouattara emerged as the internationally recognized victor of the country’s presidential election last November, but Gbagbo refused to concede defeat.

The pro-Ouattara Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire took control of most of the West African country this week and seized about 80 percent of Abidjan. Most of the fighting that remained between the Republican Forces and supporters of Gbagbo was concentrated in the Cocody and Plateau districts.

Lydie Acquah, director of The Voice of Hope radio station in Abidjan, sees the station as a means of combating poverty and empowering people in Côte d’Ivoire. A UMNS 2010 file  photo by Tim Tanton.
Lydie Acquah, director of The Voice of Hope radio station
in Abidjan, sees the station as a means of combating
poverty and empowering people in Côte d’Ivoire. A UMNS
2010 file photo by Tim Tanton. View in Photo Gallery

The presidential residence is in Cocody, where The United Methodist Church’s regional offices, radio station and bishop’s residence are also located.

“The Voice of Hope” radio station continued to broadcast music automatically today. The five-person team that had been barricaded inside the station left late on March 31 as the fighting around Cocody intensified. The team was reported to be safe, as was the station’s director.

The United Methodist pastors in Abidjan were also believed to be safe, though Boni had not heard from all of them.

While Boni and his group were safe at a private residence, the gunfire outside was so loud at times that it interrupted the interview. An assistant to the bishop said it appeared that soldiers were firing into the air but no fighting was under way. The soldiers may have been chasing looters, said the assistant, who asked not to be named.

The small group with Boni included his wife, N'Gbesso Berthe Boni, and two conference leaders: the Rev. Isaac Bodje, secretary of the conference; and the Rev. Josue Affi, superintendent of the Abidjan North District and pastor of Jubilee United Methodist Church. Their families are scattered but are all right, the assistant said.

Providing relief

Boni voiced concern about the international embargo on his country, which is preventing medicine from reaching those in need. “In hospitals, many, many people are dying,” he said.

The church’s hospital in nearby Dabou has seen a 15 percent increase in people seeking help, in part because some of Abidjan’s hospitals are not operating. Though people cannot afford care, the hospital is continuing to treat them, the bishop’s assistant said.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief has provided two grants of $20,000 each to the Côte d’Ivoire Conference. One grant is funding relief for displaced people, and the other is being used to feed kindergarten-age children through a program that will last beyond the crisis.

“UMCOR continues to pray for the people of Côte d'Ivoire and for United Methodist Church leaders,” said the Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey, director of the relief agency at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. “UMCOR is prepared to respond at the request of l'Eglise Méthodiste Unie en Côte d' Ivoire.”

Four churches in different parts of the city – Angré, Yopougon, Marcory and Port-Bouet – have been aiding people displaced by the fighting. Since early March, the four churches have helped more than 750 people. The churches have provided food and basic necessities and have helped the people get settled into safer areas, finding homes to host them.

No churches are known to have been damaged by this week’s violence. The church in the Abobo district, where the fighting in Abidjan began, was damaged three weeks ago, and two clergy there were beaten.

The United Methodist schools in the city were closed this week but are expected to reopen next week. However, the church’s girls’ school at Anyama is being used by the pro-Ouattara forces.

Business and marketplaces in Abidjan were closed April 1, and there were no cars on the street. Looting has become a problem in many areas, with bands of people breaking into stores and supermarkets as well as homes in search of food and money. In addition, garbage has piled up on the streets in recent weeks, resulting in a proliferation of mosquitoes – the carriers of malaria.

Hope for the future

A church representative has been in regular touch with Ouattara’s people and said they know about the church’s ministries and what it is doing to alleviate poverty. One of Ouattara’s cabinet ministers and his newly named ambassador to the United States have visited with church leaders in the Texas Conference as a result of the partnership between the Texas and Côte d’Ivoire conferences, according to the bishop’s assistant.

Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, who leads the Texas Annual (regional) Conference, sent a letter to the Council of Bishops on March 31 regarding the situation in Côte d’Ivoire. She also urged prayer for the country.

“I invite the people of The United Methodist Church to join with the people of the Texas Annual Conference as we pray for our sister conference in Côte d’Ivoire,” Huie said.

“In Jeremiah, God promises the people a future with hope,” she said. “The people of Côte d’Ivoire have endured a long season of poverty and oppression by others, and the Methodist Church has been faithful in its care and compassion for those in need. In this new time of crisis, we pray that they continue to hold fast to God’s promises and that out of the crisis will emerge a new future with hope.”

Boni gave thanks for the support from around the church.

“I would like to express my gratitude to all of our brothers and sisters who are still praying for us, for the country,” he said. “May God express his will on this situation. We are full of hope.”

*Tanton is executive director of content for United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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