Portugal in Africa

By: Katherine Marshall

December 21, 2010

Relationships between Africa and Europe are complicated, witness the tense standoff now unfolding in Cote d'Ivoire. Even decades after independence, even with a history often marked by bitter conflicts, links among nations that were part of colonial empires remain surprisingly strong. Religion is one of the reasons why.
Missionaries forged lasting ties, mainly through a dense network of schools and health facilities. Today, the number of European missionaries has dwindled, but, in various ways, churches are still part of contemporary relationships. Congregations are linked across the ocean and volunteering, often organized through churches, is a rising trend. A host of faith-linked institutions -non-governmental organizations, new religious movements, cultural institutions, and religious orders, are brokering a new generation of relationships.

Last week in Lisbon, a conference on faith and development cooperation celebrated the 20th anniversary of a small, energetic Catholic organization, the Foundation for Evangelizing and Culture. Two hot topics discussed were ties to other faiths, and how much evangelizing remains today's goal. While interfaith work is embryonic, this group seems open to new partnerships. And the "mission" or evangelizing role of the Church is clearly changing; development now seems to be the goal rather than conversion to Christianity. "Proselytizing is dialogue", one priest commented. Equally significant, the robust discussion about how to tackle education and capacity building in Guinea Bissau, Angola, and Cape Verde attested to a deep and nuanced engagement with often neglected countries.

Religion's role in international relations is a lively topic in several European countries. For ages religion barely figured in policy discussions about development, but today's consensus is that ignoring religion's role is folly. Immigrant populations have forced religion back into discussions, and reflections sparked by terrorist threats focus the mind on grievances and gaps in understanding. Policy makers look to the experience of religious institutions which, despite the official tendency to silence, have a long history of advocacy and action.

Portugal today is proudly secular and it is one of five European countries where same sex couples can marry legally. But its history is very Catholic. Five hundred plus years ago, when Portugal's was the world's greatest empire, few families were not in some way personally involved in colonial ventures.

Portugal used to have the highest share of Catholics in Western Europe. The Catholic Church was deeply engaged in colonial adventures; the first Sub Saharan African Christians were baptized by the Portuguese. The Church was also part of authoritarian rule and oppression, at home and abroad. As Portugal becomes more modern and more urban, religion has a far lesser hold. Today, activists bemoan the Church's limited engagement in public policy debates about development issues and choices.

This history helps to explain why religion has faded from public view but keeps a place in life and thought. Portuguese debates about development are marked by the recent and rather raw memory of decolonization. While most African countries, one after another, celebrate 50 years of independence, Portuguese Africa saw independence only around 1975, and then abruptly and traumatically. Portugal's government, after its 1974 revolution, simply backed away, often leaving conflict and chaos behind. But the Church stayed on, and so it witnessed the difficult post colonial struggles close up. Church representatives seemed refreshingly leery of sweeping advice and pronouncements but keenly aware of practical day to day realities in Bissau and Luanda.

Tempering the debates is the reality of poverty and inequality in Portugal today. Many Portuguese ask: why help people far away when so many suffer in our own community? A result is blurred distinctions between national and international institutions and programs; many groups work both with Portuguese communities and overseas. That includes Catholic orders and organizations but also the Aga Khan Development Foundation. This blending encourages far more sharing of experience than is often the case.

Portugal's history makes development an immediate and very human challenge. "As society becomes ever more globalized, it make us neighbours but does not make us brothers," Pope Benedict observed. Portugal's still living memory of a bitter decolonization, young people's urge to volunteer overseas, and Church institutions sobered by history bring development challenges close to home, even though thousands of miles separate Lisbon from Luanda and Maputo. The sense of common destiny and willingness to grapple with harsh history offers promising lessons for the pragmatic and principled approach to fighting poverty we all would like to see.
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