The hospital that unites Christians and Muslims

“The coexistence among Christians and Muslims, here in Benin, is serene: I often say that, if the relationship between the faithful of these two religions was like this everywhere, we would not see the dramas that cause so much bloodshed in many areas of the world today!”

Aug 19, 2016

TANGUIETA: “The coexistence among Christians and Muslims, here in Benin, is serene: I often say that, if the relationship between the faithful of these two religions was like this everywhere, we would not see the dramas that cause so much bloodshed in many areas of the world today!” These are the words of Brother Fiorenzo Priuli, 70 years old, a surgeon, and a beacon for thousands of patients in Africa; a WHO (World Health Organization) consultant for AIDS and infectious diseases, who was awarded the Legion of Honor by the President of the French Republic. Of himself, he says: “I am grateful to the Lord who has called me to collaborate with him in the wonderful work of treating those who suffer and protecting life.” For more than 40 years, he has lived in a small town in the north of the country, Tanguiéta, where he runs the St John of God Hospital, a centre of excellence in African medicine, founded in 1970 by the Hospitaller Order of the Brothers of St John of God, known as the Fatebenefratelli. At the time, it offered 82 beds; now there are 415.

The history of this great hospital, which has also become a university centre, speaks of the beautiful bond that is manifest between human beings of different religions when they share responsibility towards an injured human, and ally themselves, giving their best to lift up the lives that have been downtrodden by illness: strong ties that transcend the boundaries of states.

A common goal: Healthcare
The hospital physicians, including interns, number 25, while the paramedic and administrative staff consists of three hundred people. “Many are Muslim (such as my deputy in the operating room, who recently married a Catholic nurse) and the relationships between all of us are excellent,” says Bro Fiorenzo. “We work together day and night, driven by a common goal: to try to provide the best possible assistance to the thousands of patients who come here, often after facing long and exhausting journeys. Every year, we have 18,000-20,000 new patients (of which 5,000 are children) who come from neighbouring countries (Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria): 14,000 are hospitalized, while others receive outpatient care.”

The little patients
The climate in this area is particularly hard: for a few months, temperatures reach 43 degrees by day and by night; the dry season lasts more than six months and this promotes the spread of disease, which also afflicts the population in the form of epidemics (such as measles, typhoid, and meningitis). “There is always a lot of work to do,” says Bro Fiorenzo: “The department of pediatrics, which has 111 beds, never has less than 130-140 patients, sometimes even 300. Unfortunately, it still happens today that children arrive at the hospital in critical condition because their parents preferred to try to cure them by trusting the local witch doctor. The most widespread religion, in fact, is animism, here in the north, and fetishism in the rest of the country. We Christians are about 15 per cent of the population, while Muslims make up 15-18 per cent.”

The friendship with the caliph of Kiota
About thirty years ago, among the patients at the hospital, there was a Muslim originating from Kiota (a city of Niger, 700 kilometers from Tanguiéta), who, after returning home, described the great assistance he received to the caliph of Kiota, the authoritative spiritual guide of the Sufi-inspired Tijaniyya Brotherhood. Since then, the caliph began sending patients regularly to the hospital in Tanguiéta, giving each a letter in which he described their clinical case to Bro Fiorenzo and promising remembrance in Friday prayers at the mosque. “The caliph was a man of peace, very open, and genuinely involved in interreligious dialogue. When he died, the first person who rushed to view the remains was the Archbishop of Niamey,” recalls Bro Fiorenzo. “Our relationship was only through letters: we never met, but we became friends, bound by mutual esteem and affection.”

From father to son
Continuing the work of the caliph is now the son, Cheikh Moussa Aboubacar Hassouni, 56 years old, married and the father of four children, religious leader and director of the El Azhar University in Kiota. He is part of the Interregional Commission for Interreligious Dialogue, is president of the “Interreligious Dialogue Committee” of the Niamey region and is completing the drafting of a training manual on this issue as a consultant of a partner organization of the European Union.

The situation in Niger
“In the meetings devoted to dialogue,” he says, “I give the example of Niger, where relations between Christians and Muslims are friendly and peaceful, based on collaboration and mutual respect. It is always my desire to support and defend a peaceful Islam, in this case, that of Sufi Islam and the Tijaniyya Brotherhood, which is the majority in my country.”

Bro Fiorenzo describes him as a man who is faithful to the work and the style of his father. “This continuity has great value for me. I still remember, with emotion, the party that was organized in my honour in Kiota a few years ago. Many of my patients had been invited from all parts of Niger. I received extraordinary demonstrations of affection and gratitude.” The caliph Moussa Aboubacar, for his part, expressed his admiration for the Friar: “What I find most striking is his generous availability and simplicity: I really appreciate his desire to become the servant of all, without making distinctions based on skin colour, or religious or political belief. He is a man of great humanity.”

The Catholic presence
And, reflecting on the Christian presence in Africa, he says: “I am convinced that they can bring peace, brotherhood and development to the African continent. The Catholics in Niger have built schools and hospitals, generously putting them at the disposal of the population, which is predominantly Muslim. They were also able to stand next to each person, sharing in their joys and sorrows. These are gestures that Muslims really appreciate.”

Fruitful brotherhood
Authentically religious people (Christians and Muslims) who work together “can offer an important witness to the world, to provide proof that brotherhood and mutual understanding are possible,” says Bro Fiorenzo. According to the caliph Moussa Aboubacar, “these constitute the foundation that the world needs today, in order to build peace tomorrow. The most concrete example is offered precisely by the exemplary relations of friendship and fraternity that bind the caliphate of Kiota and Bro Fiorenzo: it is not just a simple friendship between two men, but a friendship which has the involvement of the entire population, who is its first witness, and is the first to benefit.” -- La Stampa

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