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Africa

Have hope in nation building, cardinal tells South Sudan

media Cardinal Peter Turkson gestures during a news conference at the Vatican, March 17, 2014. Reuters/Stefano Rellandini

In an exclusive interview with RFI, an influential African cardinal has urged South Sudan to work hard towards nation building despite recent violent conflict.

Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana has spent the past week in South Sudan meeting religious leaders, government officials, aid agencies and internally displaced people.

The purpose of his visit was to foster a sense of peace in the world's newest nation, which for the past three months has been embroiled in a violent conflict.

Fighting between government forces and rebels loyal to former vice president Reik Machar has claimed more than 1000 lives and led more than 150,000 people to flee their homes.

RFI’s Juba correspondent Onen Walter Solomon spoke to Cardinal Turkson about his visit, as well as his views on sectarian unrest in the Central African Republic and Nigeria.

Onen Walter Solomon: What compelled you to visit South Sudan?

Cardinal Peter Turkson: My visit here was motivated by solidarity the local church and the people of South Sudan. So that's why I came now. My initial plan had been to combine this visit with Central African Republic.

Click to listen
Cardinal Peter Turkson speaks to RFI 23/03/2014 Listen

OWS: What message do you have concerning unrest in the Central African Republic?

PT: The issue of concern in the case of the Central African Republic is that the impression should not be given to the world that it is Christian persecuting Muslims. If the right message is not given out, and the impression given is that where Christians are the majority they can attack the minority. That also means that were Muslims are in the majority they can attack what, a minority? That's not the situation, because several places in Africa, including Ghana, we have always lived together with Muslims in peace.

The case of Central African Republic was different because of a lot of other factors which happened. From the forces of militia men that the former president brought in and whatever. So it's a little more complicated. But for me what is important is that the right message goes out, [rather] than the wrong twisted message that can cause other problems elsewhere.

OWS: Could religion play a role in helping to bring peace to Nigeria's troubled north and middle belt?

PT: Yes, although it appears that the trouble is caused by religion. Because the Boko Haram phenomenon, they root it in Islam. Although talking to the Archbishop of Abuja and several bishops from the area, they say it's not simply that. Because Boko Haram do not only attack Christians, they even attack Muslims. OK, so they are giving the impression that it is not just an Islamic group against a Christian group. It appears to be a movement that has both political and social...You know that the name Boko Haram itself means anything from the west is haram. Here you know a bit of Arabic, and Haram means to be avoided. And it's just that if you feel disappointed by western civilisation and education. So your question: can religion play any role? Yes, religion can play a role, recognising at the same that we need to give people the right sense of religion in certain cases. We know that we have a structure whereby the Pope can speak and everybody down there will listen. But it’s not so with other religions. We know that we can't get that. But we know that we can work with the local groups and teach them that religion is for the well-being of the human being. And this should be preserved as much as possible. And where it is being politicised or whatever, help people to avoid falling into those traps.

OWS: What social factors are at play in your native Ghana that have enabled it to remain largely peaceful all these years?

PT: (Laughter) It is not a secret. It is just at a certain point. From all the experiences we've had, and people making the fundamental choice that it is better to discuss and settle differences rather than to always fight. And to your question regarding the social factors: because Ghana is also ethnic and tribal like here (South Sudan). Ghana is full of different ethnic groups too, but at a certain point you learn to fashion a national vision. In the light that all the small-small divisions have to give in. Negotiation is still possible, and you encourage people to accept compromises, especially when it is political. And you know that as long as the constitution is in place, everybody is there for four years, so if you lose now, the next four years you can't (win). And as in all political campaigns people loose money. You spend money to go around campaigning and therefore you feel like you've lost money, so you want that money back. This issue is being discussed in the Ghana parliament to see whether political parties need to be helped in their campaigning. But no decision has been taken yet. Gradually, the ability of the country to live peacefully, to get together to compromise on issues. At the end of the day it's what everybody tries to help with. The religious groups play a role. The legal groups play a role. So we have a far better developed civil society groups in Ghana than over here (South Sudan). And that's the one thing that over here would be necessary to develop. Because everything that is happening is not between SPLM this, SPLM that. The other stakeholders are in society and people, and all of that, so it's good to get them on board too.

OWS: Your eminence you've met church men, you've met the president and his cabinet. And you went to meet IDPs (Internally Displaced People) in the UN camp. On leaving South Sudan, what final message do you have for people here?

PT: The basic final message is that of hope. We don't give up yet. The radio station you’re working for is based in France, no? Everybody knows the history of France. The storming of the Bastille, and all the people who were killed in the process. They left équalité, liberté and fraternité. I'm not giving a lecture on France but all I'm saying is that nation-building is a complex issue. That being the case we need to be patient. We need to be hopeful. And being hopeful and patient means that hopefully also the leaders will have a certain amount of respect for the basic dignities of people and the rights of people. The tendency to make history the source of reference for everything that must happen now must also gradually change. And we should do everything in sustaining this hope to recognise that the type of ideas which people want. They want to live happily. They want to live peacefully. They want to live with their dignity fully respected. And it is good despite all of the challenges of this young government to have an ear for all of these things for the people.

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