Sierra Leone, The Catholic Church in

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The Republic of Sierra Leone is a tropical, largely agricultural country on the west coast of Africa, bordered on the southeast by liberia, on the south and west by the North Atlantic Ocean, and on the north and northeast by the Republic of guinea. Hot and humid through most of the year, the region is characterized by coastal swamps rising to wooded hills, thence to a plateau region and mountains in the far east. Natural resources include diamonds, titanium, bauxite, iron ore, gold and chromite. Agricultural production, which is threatened annually by dusty harmattan winds blowing westward from the encroaching Sahara, include rice, coffee, cocoa, palm, peanuts, livestock and fish.

A British colony from 1808 and protectorate from 1896, Sierra Leone became an independent and sovereign

member of the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1961. A settled government became established by 1970, although as a result of the famine, ethnic tensions and government corruption that characterized the 1980s, a military coup under General Valentine Strasser gained power in April of 1992. After working to end corruption and reform the region's economy, the government removed the ban on political parties in 1995. The first democratic elections were held in 1996 and a civilian president elected. The region's mineral wealthparticularly its diamond minesprompted a decade of civil war in an effort to unseat the government by the Revolutionary United Front. In addition to the negative impact on the economy as a result of the forced closure of mines, thousands were killed and another 2,000,000 made refugees by 2000 as a result of the continued violence. A peace agreement signed in 1999 and the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping forces in the region boded well for a return to peace.

History. After the Portuguese exploration of the region's coast c. 1462, there followed many attempts at evangelization among the Temne and other tribes that left little permanent trace. The depredations of pirates and a flourishing slave trade kept mission efforts at bay through the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1858 the vicariate apostolic of Sierra Leone was detached from the vicariate of the Two Guineas and confided to the Society of the african missions, whose founder marion-brÉsillac came to start the mission, but soon died of yellow fever, along with his four companions. The holy ghost fathers then assumed charge, and sent two missionaries in 1864. The St. Joseph Sisters of Cluny arrived soon after. The mission made modest but steady progress, but did not gain converts in the same manner as British Protestants, who had established a haven for destitute British slaves along the Sierra Leone coast in 1787 and continued to work to abolish slavery as well as to evangelize. After 1815, as British colonization of the area increased, British warships sent ashore at Freetown all slaves captured on foreign ships.

By the mid-20th century the Catholic mission gave much attention to education, which was supported by the British government. The hierarchy was created in 1964, at which time there were no native priests. The diocese of Makeni was entrusted to the Xaverians of Parma.

By 2000 there were 37 parishes tended by 52 diocesan and 70 religious priests. Other religious included approximately 40 brothers and 60 sisters, who ran the country's 386 primary and 48 secondary Catholic schools. Although freedom of religion was guaranteed under the constitution promulgated on Oct. 1, 1991, that changed during a short-lived military coup took control of the government in 1998 and Catholic missionaries became the target of kidnappers and other violence. In January of 1999, five months before a peace agreement was reached between the government and rebel leaders, Freetown Archbishop Joseph Ganda was taken in a rebel raid, although he managed to escape shortly thereafter. Church leaders remained active in efforts to free hostages and orchestrate a lasting peace in the region, and joined Caritas International in that organization's efforts to return the 330,000 refugees who fled the country to their homes. Three thousand rebels turned over their weapons to the government in June of 2001, signaling the potential for a lasting peace in Sierra Leone. Diplomatic relations with the Holy See were established in 1996.

Bibliography: k. s. latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, 7 v. (New York 193745) v.3. Bilan du Monde 2:790792. Annuario Pontificio has information on all diocese. For additional bibliog. see africa.

[j. bouchaud/eds.]

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