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Church leaders find cause for hope in Liberia

8/14/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

For related coverage, see UMNS story #404.

By Elliott Wright*

NEW YORK (UMNS) - Mission leaders of the United Methodist Church are expressing cautious optimism that the transfer of political power in Liberia will be a prelude to peace in the war-torn West Africa nation, where the church has some 140,000 members.

"We hope and pray that the decision of President Charles Taylor to leave Liberia will open the way to end the agonizing civil war," said Bishop Joel N. Martinez of San Antonio, president, and the Rev. R. Randy Day, top staff executive, of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

"We also call upon all United Methodists to continue to pray for stability in Liberia," they said in a joint statement. "We join Bishop John Innis of Liberia in his recent appeal for peace and reconciliation in his homeland."

Taylor, who has been accused of "crimes against humanity" by a United Nations panel, handed over the reins of government to Vice President Moses Blah on Aug. 11 and went into exile in Nigeria. His removal was backed by an organization of West African governments and by the United States.

Later in the week, a force of U.S. Marines moved into the capital city to support the West African peacekeepers already there. As they moved in Aug. 14, the rebel forces that had laid siege to the city began withdrawing.

Rebel groups have been fighting the Taylor-Blah administration for years, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties in recent weeks. Civil war has been a periodic reality in Liberia since the 1980s.

Martinez and Day said they appreciated "the international pressure from West African nations and the United States that forced Mr. Taylor to step aside." An earlier statement asked for international effort to force his hand and to bring Taylor to justice.

"We are cautious in our expectations because it is not yet clear how the new president, Mr. Blah, will deal with the insurgents," the Martinez-Day statement said. "We hope for truth in suggestions that a new, more neutral government will be set up by October.

"In the meantime, our Liberian brothers and sisters long for peace. Many of them are suffering at home while others are in refugee camps, particularly in Ghana.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief is prepared to resume the work it had been doing inside Liberia and to continue assisting refugees. Also, United Methodist mission personnel evacuated from Liberia earlier are posted to several places just outside the country where they provide ministry and humanitarian aid. One such place is the Buduburam Refugee Camp in Ghana, set up by churches and humanitarian organizations.

Mission workers there reported that new arrivals from Monrovia, the Liberian capital, in June increased already bad conditions.

Martinez and Day urged support for UMCOR's Liberian Emergency effort through the Advance, the "second mile" mission giving program of the church, which will provide assistance both inside the country and to refugees. The Advance number is 150300, and contributions can be dropped in church collection plates or sent to UMCOR at 475 Riverside Dr., Room 330, New York, NY 10115.

On Aug. 12, a container of supplies for Liberia was ready for shipment at UMCOR's Sager Brown Depot in Louisiana. The Rev. Paul Dirdak, director of UMCOR, indicated that plans were being made to open an outpatient clinic at the site of the Ganta United Methodist Hospital in northeastern Liberia, which was looted by rebels in June.

United Methodist mission staff in Liberia were taken in May to safety to other West African countries and reassigned to refugee and health ministries. Bishop Innis also was forced out of the country and took refuge in Ghana.

In June, Innis issued an international appeal for stabilization in his homeland and also addressed the Liberian people on the nature of peace. "Fellow Liberians," he said, "we need peace in our country. Peace means love in action. Therefore, we must put away hostility and violence.

"Let us give Liberia the love it deserves," he said. "Let us work to give Liberia its place in the world community of nations. May we pray for our brothers and sisters in arms. May we pray for the warlords in and outside our country so that God may transform their hearts into productive citizens."

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*Wright is acting information officer at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in New York.

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