Guinea: Robert Sarah, a prelate with a strong voice

By Marième Soumaré
Posted on Wednesday, 21 December 2022 12:39

Cardinal Robert Sarah, at the Vatican, on 12 March 2013. © Gabriel Bouys/AFP

The Guinean cardinal, an advisor to Pope Francis, is an outspoken critic of the transition in his country and the attitude of the military. At nearly 77, he has lost none of his frankness.

This is part 3 of a 7-part series

The church of Sainte-Rose-de-Lima is said to be one of the oldest churches in Guinea. The Spiritan Fathers built this stone structure in the first half of the 20th century in the village of Ourous, nestled in a far corner of the country near the border with Senegal. Every year, around Christmas, Cardinal Robert Sarah returns to the mountainous area where he was born on 15 June 1945.

The prince of the church leaves the Vatican, where he was appointed cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, to return to the simplicity of his village, this “place cut off from the world” where he lived a happy childhood.

Traditionally animist, Ourous was gradually evangelised by colonial missionaries. Sarah’s father carried the church bell from Conakry, with the help of other villagers, before the birth of the man who could one day become the first African pope in history.

Nephews have long occupied the family home. It is therefore in a building belonging to the parish that Sarah lives when he comes to the village. He even had the building renovated. However, in December 2021, his last visit to Ourous had to be cut short after he fell ill. The cardinal had to be rushed back to Conakry, 500km away, to be hospitalised. For a man of almost 77 years of age, the journey by road would have been long and exhausting, so the ruling junta chartered a helicopter for him: one of the advantages of his influence in Guinea.

‘Guineans no longer have the right to make mistakes’

As the Archbishop of Conakry from 1979 to 2001, Sarah has a reputation for not mincing his words. Last September, just a few days after Mamadi Doumbouya’s coup d’état against Alpha Conde, the man of God expressed himself in a letter to the military. Their ascent to power is an opportunity for Guinea to start again on a new basis, he believes.

However, he warned that “Guineans no longer have the right to make mistakes.” Inviting the new authorities to be wary of the “unrepentant, corrupt and incompetent predators” who accompanied the previous governments, he urged them to be ” extremely severe” in how they deal with those who seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the people.

In the Catholic world, the harsh tone of this statement is surprising; some even doubted its authenticity. Since he joined Rome, the ultra-conservative cardinal has been more willing to talk about the decline of the church and the West than about the situation in his country; and this is only the beginning.

In December 2021, Doumbouya had been at the head of the country for more than three months, and in the ranks of the opponents of Alpha Conde, relief had turned to apprehension.

They were concerned about the lack of an electoral timetable, lack of transparency and the threats of sanctions from ECOWAS. In addition, the president of the transition had made two controversial decisions, which reawakened the old demons of the divided country. Sarah was offended by this and the sermon he gave on 29 December left a lasting impression.

Doumbouya decided to rename the international airport Sékou Touré, after the country’s first president, a move that provoked the ire of Prime Minister Mohamed Béavogui, who publicly criticised it, but in vain. The prelate, for his part, denounced it as a “clumsy” manoeuver. What also angered him was the announcement of the return of the Bellevue huts to Touré’s widow. Robert Sarah saw this as a “serious and unjust” error as the huts had been claimed by the church.

The cardinal is known for not mincing his words. He has always been resistant to the temptations of power

Under the regime of Touré, property belonging to Catholics had been seized in what was seen as an attack on the country’s (small) Christian community.

Touré also expelled foreign priests and sent Raymond-Marie Tchidimbo, Sarah’s predecessor as Archbishop of Conakry, to Camp Boiro for nearly 10 years. When the latter became the youngest bishop in the world ( he was 34 years old), it was because many Guinean clergy figures had become victims of this purge.

‘Parallel government’

On 29 December, Sarah did not limit his criticism to the delicate issue of Touré’s legacy. He addressed the political class in its entirety. “What have you done with your country and its wealth? Have you not sold it off, sold it for the sole benefit of foreign countries, with the complicity of a handful of corrupt Guineans?”

He then warned the members of the National Committee of the Rally for Development (CNRD) of the risks of a “parallel government” that would run the country from the shadows in the greatest secrecy. “This way of proceeding is certainly inspired by the Evil One,” the prelate said. This is good news for Guinean politicians, who are taking the opportunity to criticise Doumbouya’s entourage and worry about the degree of transparency in decision-making at the top of the state.

Did Doumbouya get the message? His entourage assures us that the two men spoke and saw each other before the cardinal went to the Vatican on 4 January 2022. Does the distance, which separates Sarah from Guinea, allow him to express himself more freely?

By not living in Conakry, he can say what he thinks

In Conakry, where the Church seems to prefer quiet meetings with the authorities, the mention of Sarah’s name provokes a certain embarrassment. “By not living in Conakry, he can say what he thinks,” says a Catholic dignitary. “For those of us who stay here, it is more complicated. Any comment would be tantamount to the Church taking a position. We prefer to wait and see how things develop.”

Double minority

“The cardinal is known for not mincing his words. He has always been resistant to the temptations of power,” says Kabinet Fofana, a political scientist. As an advisor to the Pope, he has long since distanced himself from the political field, but that also makes him a unifying figure. In a predominantly Muslim country, Christians are seen as more outspoken, as less complicit (with the authorities), and who better than him to embody Christianity in Guinea? “The Church was in the minority, but it was the only truly free institution,” the cardinal says of the Touré era.

At the time, spies listened to his sermons and reported back to the revolutionary party leaders. Even today, Sarah is convinced that Touré planned to have him arrested and even executed. His warning against “a power that wears out men”, in one of his sermons, is still remembered. He was not any kinder in his references to Lansana Conté. At the time when Alpha Condé was an opposition leader in exile in Paris, he did not fail to visit him.

Sarah is a minority because of his religion in a country that is 88% Muslim, and also because of his Coniagui origins, an ethnic group attached to ancestral rites and made up mainly of farmers and herders. Andrée Touré, the widow of the former president, does not hide the contempt he inspires in her. She once said: “If Robert Sarah has forgotten this, I must remind him: it is thanks to President Sékou Touré that his ethnic group, the Coniagui, began to wear clothes.” Sarah did not react to this statement.

Under Sékou Touré, Robert Sarah really played the role of an opponent.

“He comes from a small community, which has never been involved in ethnic tensions. This puts him above the fray,” says an observer of Guinean political life. “If he stood up to Sékou Touré, Doumbouya is not going to intimidate him!”

“In Guinea, he has retained the image of a man capable of telling the truth to everyone, and in particular to statesmen,” says Father Clément Lonah, president of the Catholic University of West Africa in Bamako, who also comes from the village of Ourous.

Even so, if no one questions the respectability of the character, has he retained all his influence? “Under Sékou Touré, Robert Sarah really played the role of an opponent. He risked his life and people respected him for that, but it is difficult to be legitimate when you are no longer in the field,” said one observer.

Conservatism

Never mind the criticism! The cardinal assures us that he never wanted to be political. “He is not looking for an official position. He wants to make a contribution. His Christian faith compels him to serve mankind. If he feels the need to express himself with regard to the political situation of the country, it is because he has the happiness of Guinea at heart and he knows that all Guineans, and not only Christians, are eager to listen to him,” says one of his relatives in Conakry.

A member of the most conservative branch of the Curia, Robert Sarah also enjoys great popularity in Western traditionalist circles. Since he resigned as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the cardinal – who remains an advisor to the pope in the Vatican – has been giving seminars, conferences and travelling around the world. He also sells his books. After the publication of the controversial De la profondeur de nos cœurs (The Depth of our Hearts), devoted to the celibacy of priests and co-written with Benedict XVI, the latest, Catéchisme de la vie spirituelle (Catechism of the Spiritual Life) was published by Fayard on May 11.

‘Invasive’ Islam

In front of the faithful, the Guinean holds a stance quite different from that of Pope Francis. He called for the control of European borders, worried about the “disappearance” of the Old Continent and the rise of an “invasive” Islam. Only Africa, he believes, can still save a Christianity in full decline. If he calls himself “neither traditionalist nor progressive”, it is in conservative circles that his discourse finds the most resonance.

“In Africa, there is a feeling of disconnection with the Church. Its concerns are not necessarily those of the African bishops,” says an expert on Vatican affairs. “And many young people today feel closer to new figures, like Mamadi Doumbouya.”

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