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Faith leaders' pivotal role in Ebola response was overlooked

11 February 2015 - As Ebola infection rates drop in Sierra Leone, Christian relief agencies are urging global and national institutions, donors and policy makers to ensure Sierra Leone’s faith leaders are given a “pivotal” role in their post-Ebola recovery plans.

Christian Aid, CAFOD and Tearfund believe global institutions such as the World Health Organisation and the United Nations have not engaged sufficiently with Christian and Muslim leaders in Sierra Leone, who they say have played a vital and often unsung role in the fight against Ebola virus.

In a statement released today, the three agencies warn that “there was a significant missed opportunity in not involving faith leaders further at the very start of the outbreak.  The role of faith leaders has often been overlooked and in many cases their potential contribution to the Ebola crisis is still not being fully realised.”

The Ebola virus has caused nearly 3,000 deaths and infected over 8,000 people in Sierra Leone. With infection rates now falling, Christian Aid, CAFOD and Tearfund want policy makers in the UK, European Union, Sierra Leone, World Bank, United Nations and World Health Organisation to outline clear strategies for making religious leaders “a pivotal part” of Ebola recovery and prevention programmes.

Christian Aid Country Manager for Sierra Leone Jeanne Kamara says: “Since the outbreak began, faith leaders nationwide have continuously used their unique position of trust and influence within communities to work tirelessly to educate thousands of people about Ebola in order to help stop the spread of the virus. They have offered comfort and solace to the sick, the suffering and the bereaved.

“In a country characterised by a deep sense of faith, religious leaders have been a source of support at a time of fear, confusion, loss, suffering, financial hardship and trauma. We hope the international community acknowledges and validates their vital role in the response to Sierra Leone’s outbreak and integrates them fully in future plans to help rebuild the country.”

The joint statement from Christian Aid, CAFOD and Tearfund says: “As Ebola recovery plans are developed, it is of the utmost importance that faith leaders are fully involved and represented in high-level decision making processes at an international, regional and country level. Faith leaders should be involved in the drafting process.”

This call was reiterated at a House of Commons event hosted today by Christian Aid, CAFOD and Tearfund. At the event two Sierra Leonean clergy – the Rt Rev Edward Thamba Charles, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Freetown and Head of the Inter-religious Council of Sierra Leone, and the Rev Fr Peter Conteh, Director of Caritas in Freetown – addressed MPs, Peers and policy makers on religious groups' engagement with the health crisis.

In Sierra Leone, faith leaders have been active at the heart of the community since the outbreak started. Many pastors, priests and imams have worked hard to persuade people to change the unsafe burial practices and deep-rooted cultural traditions that boosted the spread of the virus.

Agencies such as Christian Aid have been working on the ground through local faith-based groups since the outbreak began. Christian Aid partner the Methodist Church of Sierra Leone used its existing HIV and community health networks to speak out against the destructive stigmatisation of Ebola survivors.

The Methodist Church also worked with Christian Aid to deliver food to quarantined homes and to train over 50 ministers to promote Ebola prevention measures to their congregations.

Christian Aid partners have also worked in eight Sierra Leone districts to train up to 500 religious leaders in psycho-social counselling, using funds raised by the British public though the Disasters Emergency Committee Ebola Crisis Appeal.

In the joint briefing, sent to MPs, Lords and UK NGOs, Christian Aid, CAFOD and Tearfund point out that faith leaders can meet the “strong need for skilled personnel” to counsel Ebola survivors, the bereaved and other affected individuals in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

“Given their influence in communities and the potential harm of wrong messages, well-trained faith leaders… can be a crucial part of the countries’ recovery and healing. Faith leaders and faith-based organisations must be allocated dedicated funding for training and related materials, and on-going mentoring, particularly in counselling.”

The three agencies also want policy makers to use their Ebola response evaluations to consider whether faith leaders were utilised from very outset of the outbreak, and to see what lessons must be learned.

They have also invited research bodies and donors to investigate the “unique” role of faith leaders in creating behavioural change during the outbreak.

If you would like further information or a full copy of the joint statement, please contact Tomi Ajayi on 020 7523 2427. Or call the 24-hour press duty phone: 07850 242950  

Notes to editors:

1. Christian Aid works in some of the world's poorest communities in around 50 countries at any one time. We act where there is great need, regardless of religion, helping people to live a full life, free from poverty. We provide urgent, practical and effective assistance in tackling the root causes of poverty as well as its effects.

2. Christian Aid’s core belief is that the world can and must be changed so that poverty is ended: this is what we stand for. Everything we do is about ending poverty and injustice: swiftly, effectively, sustainably. Our strategy document Partnership for Change explains how we set about this task.

3. Christian Aid is a member of the ACT Alliance, a global coalition of more than 130 churches and church-related organisations that work together in humanitarian assistance, advocacy and development. Further details at http://actalliance.org

4. Follow Christian Aid's newswire on Twitter: http://twitter.com/caid_newswire

5. For more information about the work of Christian Aid, visit http://www.christianaid.org.uk

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