Abba Angelo: A Life for Ethiopia

An Italian Bishop in the Service of the Needy

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By Eva-Maria Kolmann

“Abba Angelo, Abba Angelo,” cry the children when they see the old white jeep with the cracked windscreen. “Abba Angelo,” the grownups also shout after the vehicle. Bishop Angelo Moreschi from Gambella himself sits behind the wheel. Everyone here recognises him from afar. Even the many soldiers who stop cars on the country road wave at him and let him pass. You get the feeling the bishop from Brescia in Italy is truly at home here. “In Ethiopia I really understood the Gospel,” he says with radiant eyes.

At the Apostolic Vicariate in Gambella, much of what most people imagine when they think of Africa actually exists. There are even lions and other wild animals. Only recently, hunters killed a big crocodile and found T-shirts in its belly. It had eaten four people. When the people bathe in the rivers, they have to be afraid. Moreover, the climate is extremely hot and when there are storms, they are violent. This year an entire chapel was blown a kilometer away, reports the bishop. Many of the chapels are simply put together out of boards or branches. This means a severe storm can sweep them away.

Unfortunately, another thing most people associate with Ethiopia also exists there: hunger. Especially during the dry season, there is hardly anything to eat. In each of the numerous village chapels, you see children whose frizzy hair has turned light from malnutrition. Most of them will die because their bodies have no resistance and diseases sweep them away. The little girl with the artistic plaits in the first row who sings, prays and claps to the sound of the drums so ardently is already marked by hunger. Will she survive? Two babies cuddle up on the lap of an emaciated woman. How much longer will the mother have enough milk to breastfeed them? The thought of death should not come to mind at the sight of little children. However, it inevitably arises. You look at the small horde of fair-haired children with an anxious heart. “Please, not you!”, you think to yourself looking at each of them.

Abba Angelo brings biscuits for the undernourished children when he visits the villages. The little boys and girls line up obediently and wait patiently until each of them receives a pack. None of the children pushes and shoves, no one shouts “me!”. When the bishop blesses them, they compliantly fold their hands and pray immersed in thought. On the altar, pieced together out of branches, there is food for their souls: an extremely well-thumbed children’s Bible from “Aid to Church in Need.”

Again and again, the catechist has to read from it to them. They cannot get enough of the stories. The children’s Bible pours the Gospel into the hearts of these poor children. When the little ones hear about Jesus, their eyes light up.

The Catholic Church is welcome here. Many people say to the priests: “When the Catholic Church comes, everything becomes fertile.” And they are amazed: “Where the Church is, there is water. The government gives us bad water, but the Church brings good water. We love your God, please come to us, too!” The Church not only brings water, but also flour mills, kindergartens and assistance in developing agriculture. In addition, it would like to bring about reconciliation between the tribes since bloody feuds arise again and again, particularly between the tribes that farm the land and those that put livestock out to graze. The livestock eats the crops, the farmers take the pastureland away from the herdsmen. “It’s the conflict between Cain and Abel that we know from the Bible,” says Bishop Angelo. People are repeatedly killed for this reason. The Church wants to teach the enemy tribes that there are other solutions for conflicts than the law of the gun.

Bishop Angelo, who has truly earned his name, which means “angel,” celebrates his 60th birthday on 13 June. This year he also celebrates another anniversary as he has been living and working in Ethiopia for 30 years. Half his life. In reality, however, it is an entire lifetime because he has given his all here. His health is ruined, he has given his life to the people he loves. His pastoral service has already left its mark. Some children at the Apostolic Vicariate in Gambella call every white person “Abba Angelo.” They cannot imagine there are white people who are not like him.

Nevertheless, it is doubtful how the story will end. The situation in the region is highly explosive. Only recently, rebels shot eight men who came from other areas and worked on a farm. Father Philip, an Italian Salesian, even saw their coffins at the airport. Shortly thereafter, a Pakistani, a big landowner, was murdered. The region is seething. Rich foreigners buy up enormous pieces of land that are as large as some European countries. Foreign investors arrive on every plane.

The natives, on the other hand, are dispossessed. “Imagine that half of Germany were sold to Indians and Pakistanis,” explains Bishop Angelo. The native population does not profit from this, but is deprived of its basis of life. Even more people suffer from hunger, the herdsmen no longer find pasture for their livestock and forests are destroyed. Hate and unrest increase. Anger grows, the army tries to keep the situation under control, but resistance is also stirring against the soldiers since they often mistreat the population. Moreover, there is the war between North and South Sudan, the influx of refugees and the rise in acts of violence by rebels in the border area.

A native priest suddenly says during dinner: “They will kill all foreigners here.” The bishop and the foreign priests should be concerned, too, he feels. Bishop Angelo refuses to believe it: “Nonsense, the people know us here! You saw how they waved to us!” And yet, doubt remains. It wouldn’t be the first time in history that the mood has turned.