Dan Wooding and John Tsambazis reporting:
Violence erupts at an Orthodox mission in Freetown, Sierra Leone, which is run by a former Australian rock star, and Greek Orthodox priest
A revolt broke out recently against the clergy and mission staff at Waterloo Mission in Sierra Leone, which is run by Brother Themi Adams, a former Australian rock star who once toured with the Rolling Stones.
“Threats and attacks arose within the mission’s compound amongst its own people that the mission cares for,” said his colleague, John Tsambazis, in a message to the ASSIST News Service.
Themi Adams, who left the rock world and now heads the Orthodox Mission, in the trouble-torn West African country of Sierra Leone, is accustomed to adversity, and understands very well what could be fuelling the passion for hostility.
“This community that we are assisting is caught between two ideologies,” said Brother Themi. “I jokingly refer to our Waterloo Compound as ‘The Republic of Somalia’. They oscillate between peace and violence according to the situation at hand and who is their leader. In some cases they appear to believe that the point of a gun and violence would be the most effective means of survival.”
Adams says that, since his move to Sierra Leone, his life has been in “imminent danger” on at least 50 occasions, but added, “my escape each time was due solely to the grace of God”.
Speaking of the latest attacks, he said: “Due to a recent storm, one of the roofs on a building had blown away. Our people started to complain bitterly about it, demanding immediate action. Not being fully satisfied with our reaction, they began to hurl insults at a guest who was staying with us. Becoming increasingly aggressive, they then went on a violent rampage.”
A decade after the war’s end, Sierra Leone still remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Between 1991 and 2002, the Sierra Leone civil war devastated the country, leaving more than 50,000 people dead, much of the country’s infrastructure destroyed, and over two million people displaced in neighbouring countries as refugees.
Most of the country’s nearly 6 million people live on less than $1.25 (USD) a day, and it remains among the deadliest places in the world. Earlier this year, the capital of Freetown was hard-hit by a cholera outbreak.
“People do what they know to survive,” said Themi. “If they know ‘bad things’, they will do them. This is what we are here for; to help and get them back on track and, at times, this can be to our own detriment.
“After this latest rampage, my supporters wanted me to abandon the mission and return to Australia. My staff, also, were shattered and they were ready to pack their bags too.”
According to Ajai Sahni, Executive Director of the Institute of Conflict Management, “some Christian converts welcome the chance to free themselves from a low-caste status and join Christian missionary life and have higher expectations, so their claims might well be legitimate”.
Mr Sahni also believes there are other underlying factors that might be contributing to the intolerance between some Christian missionary people.
“Aggressive and unprincipled missionary work that exploits the distress and ignorance of marginalised groups can constitute a catalyst to localised violence, particularly when they are brought into confrontation with other creeds,” he said. “Sensitivity and understanding is the key here.”
Themi Adams then said: “There is a tendency to romanticize missionary endeavours. Many here believe the Orthodox Church and its priests are living comfortable lives, but the truth, however, is that the Orthodox Church in Africa is at the frontier, regularly facing life-threatening situations for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Christianity may have become one of the world’s predominant religions, but there are still many places where Christians are persecuted, dispossessed, tortured and even killed for their faith. Often this occurs as part of governmental or religious policy.
“The Western media frequently under-reports these incidents, fearing that they might offend cultural sensibilities.”
He added: “While I was being advised to simply remove the ring leaders from the compound, I stressed that our Lord Jesus Christ’s insistence on forgiveness and the necessity to try to understand that this behaviour is a function of what they had experienced and learned during the long and brutal years of the civil war.
“These people have suffered economic loss, homicidal death, physical injury, gang wars, slavery, intimidation, bullying, sexually transmitted diseases, and other adverse impacts, such as rigid inhuman rules, torture and corruption.
“Even though their complaints might be legitimate, and by their dissatisfaction with food, water, entertainment, and other facilities, we will find a solution.
“Missionaries must have a burden, but they also must be brave! The life of a missionary is not easy one. Often there are great dangers that must be faced. Missionaries must rely on faith amid dangers.”
A local area commando who understands the local customs and culture has now been assigned to keep the compound safe and is working on peacefully resolving the issues.
“When I think about the situation, I feel sad,” says Mohammed Lappia, who lives at the mission. “I am praying to God that everyone is peaceful, and that things are resolved peacefully. We are the legacy of the war and we don’t need more difficulties.”
He went on to explain: “A landmine blew off my foot and a fragment of it killed my father. I was lying in the bush for two weeks without treatment, and the mission has provided me great relief.”
Another resident at the mission named Bah, who contracted polio as a child, also suffered during the war, fleeing from the rebels through a combination of cycling, hobbling and being carried to the mission.
Kamara, another resident, said, “I just sit down and feel so angry about our future. I think about my parents (who were killed by the rebels). I am dependent on our caregivers who are so kind when the situation isn’t good for them. My parents were just poor farmers, and they couldn’t leave (and paid for it with their lives). We are disabled because of our circumstances and we are asking for ‘good governance’, and we do not really want to act badly or violently.”
Lappia, another occupant at the mission, says he dreams of studying law and politics, and thinks about the past and how it is tied to the injustices and frustrations of the country and wants to an end to it. He says that he appreciates all that the mission is doing for him and others.