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FOURTH IN A SERIES: In prison, Monteiro wants peace for church, Togo government

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FOURTH IN A SERIES: In prison, Monteiro wants peace for church, Togo government

In prison, Pastor António Monteiro, left, participates in a feet-washing ceremony, which is a tradition of the Lord's Supper and one of the sacraments of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He has been detained in prison in Lomé, Togo, for nearly 500 days without a trial.

Graz: more public affairs, media relations needed in all countries

July 18, 2013 | Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | ANN staff

The Lomé Civil Prison is hot and overcrowded. It’s open air, like a crowded bazaar, but without shops. Prisoners sleep 80 in a cell, side-by-side, their bodies bumping against each other all night with each toss and turn. If they pay money, they can sleep in a cell with only 26 other inmates.

Once in a while, Pastor António Monteiro has the luxury of sleeping on a mattress.

“I don’t know if many people could stay one day in there,” says John Graz, the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty department. He has visited Monteiro in prison.

“It’s crowded, it’s dirty, the hygiene is almost zero,” Graz says. “I don’t even want to think about what the toilet situation must be in there.”

In May, the blog “Citizens Movement for Truth” published photos following heavy rains that showed the prison flooded. Prisoners waded in ankle-deep water.

This has been Monteiro’s home for nearly 500 days. He and fellow Adventists Bruno Amah, Beteynam Raphael Kpiki Sama and Kpatcha Simliya have lived in this environment as they wait to be given a trial date or to be released.

Monteiro thinks the ordeal will one day be over – “in God’s time,” he says. For now, he says he’s concerned for the health of the prisoners – 1,000 are packed into a facility designed for 600.

A June 18 editorial in the local newspaper La Symphonie, stated, “If we believe the information on the continued degradation of the health of most of these prisoners, there is a strong fear that, one by one, they will die.”

The wives of Monteiro and Amah visit once a day to bring food. They pay $2 each time to come into the prison.

Members in the country have prayed along with the world church for the men’s release, but there is little else they can do.

Seventh-day Adventist work began in Togo in 1956 with an Adventist literature salesman, Georges Vaysse, according to the Adventist Encyclopedia. In 1964, a missionary from the Ivory Coast was sent to work with the fledgling group of Adventist believers.

Today there are nearly 6,000 Adventist Church members among the population of about 7.1 million. About 30 percent of the population is Christian, 20 percent are Muslim, and about 50 percent hold indigenous beliefs.

Many of those indigenous beliefs include animists and those who practice Voodoo, which often include the use of animal parts and blood in ceremonies.

Monterio is in prison on charges of murder and conspiracy in operating a blood-trafficking ring. Diplomats, ambassadors and Adventist Church leaders remain puzzled over how police and government officials could mistake Adventists for those who use blood in religious ceremonies.

“These practices are unknown in our church,” said Guy Roger, president of the Sahel Union Mission and Monterio’s boss.

Church leaders say there is a lack of understanding in Togo about the Adventist Church and its practices.

According to a March 22, 2012, police report, Quartermaster Chief Marshal Gaté N’Zonou asked Monteiro why his accuser, who has a documented history of mental instability, said blood was used in Adventist ceremonies.

“Being an Adventist, just like you, Mr. Simliya confirms that in your church blood has the secret of giving people riches and grandeur. What do you say?” N’Zonou asked Monteiro.

“I do not know anything about that, as our church is founded on the Bible,” Monteiro said.”

John Graz, the denomination’s public affairs director, said the accusation is “bizarre.” For him, a takeaway lesson is for the Adventist Church to vamp up its public affairs and media relations work worldwide.

In some parts of the world the Adventist Church is small in numbers and is incorrectly identified as a sect or cult, Graz said. “Unfortunately, not much has been done to change that perception in many places. The priorities of church leaders, therefore, must adjust for this.

“We have a responsibility,” Graz said. "That’s one of the lessons to come out of this – to bolster our public affairs and communication efforts around the world. We need to know leaders of governments and other religious faiths, and we need a regular presence in the media. Cultivating isolation has never been a good strategy for minorities.”

Indeed, some church leaders feel the Togolese government arbitrarily picked people to blame for the May 2011 murders of several young women.

Gibert Wari, president of the denomination’s West-Central Africa Division, was quoted in a September 27, 2012, ANN story, saying, “At first we could see that the government thought they were just dealing with a small church in the corner, but now with this level of support and mobilization, they see that the Adventist Church is a worldwide church.”

Officials from Cape Verde – Monteiro’s home country – recently posted online their plans for continued diplomatic efforts to secure Monteiro’s release. Cape Verde President Jorge Carlos Fonseca is sending an ambassador to Togo specifically for this case, according to the July 9, 2013, posting.

The world church on July 27 will again hold a worldwide day of prayer for Monteiro’s release. Tens of thousands of congregations are planning to participate in a show of support on what will mark day 500 of his detainment.

However the situation turns out, Adventist leaders in Togo say members are eager to continue serving the community, sponsoring mentoring events for youth and helping those in need through charity work.

“We would want reconciliation with the Togolese government after Monteiro is released from prison,” Roger said. “But for now, we just want him out.”

—for more information, visit pray4togo.com.

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