In a volatile region of northeastern Africa where the United States is trying to prevent the seeds of terrorism from taking root, Maj. Mark Ingles, an Air Force chaplain, worked with religious leaders to address humanitarian needs and challenges. He recently finished his four-month tour as deputy director of religious affairs for the Combined Joint Task Force, Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA).
In an interview with Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan, he discussed his role as a liaison to the region.
Can you tell us what your assignment is? I’m deployed to Djibouti, which is on the Horn of Africa at the mouth of the Red Sea, with CJTF-HOA. Its area of responsibility is eight African nations that include Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen (southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula).
Our focus is to keep terrorism and terrorist activities and those that would want to introduce terrorism in the area away. We work with the military of different nations, the people.
Humanitarian efforts are a wonderful way to build bridges. The term [we use] is winning the hearts and minds of the people. It’s a wonderful approach: talking with and meeting with the people, finding ways to try to help.
How do you interact with more radical countries? You’re going to have radical elements. … Most important is to find ways to keep radicalism from developing in the first place. We deal with those elements that we can hopefully have discussions or liaison with.
What are your most challenged countries? Somalia. It’s been unstable so long. All through Africa, you find Somalia refugees. They just want a country that is stable. If they put aside their differences and prejudices, I hope the existing government, the Islamic courts and warlords can sit down and make that happen. It’s in their hands.
How are you measuring progress in the area of religious affairs? One metric is the donation aspect – dollar figure. By the time I left, we had received $94,000 in donated goods, a huge amount to distribute to various parts of the region. Another aspect is, are we invited back? Once you meet them, they’re giving you a good look: Do [they] trust you? Are you there to help?
The other metric is the budget to build wells, humanitarian projects and civil affairs. How it’s spent: building schools, clinics, pharmacies, wells and shelters. That’s a great way of showing what kind of effect you’re having. And you’re training the people of a country how to deal with terrorism.
Talk about the civil affairs efforts. During an exercise in Kenya, they did [medical, dental and veterinary civic assistance programs]. We saw over 2,000 villagers throughout the whole region just in two weeks. In the midst of all that, you’re doing everything you can to counter the re-mergence of terrorism in the region. And Kenya is a huge beacon of hope for the African continent.
How are you received as a Christian chaplain? We found ways to cross a lot of barriers as religious men. There’s a degree of respect shared, no matter what your faith, for men of religion. [I] wear the uniform and a cross on my chest. I’ve never had a feeling that they felt negative to me being a Christian chaplain.
What needs did religious leaders share? A big need is having fresh water. One of the things when we had discussions with religious leaders was finding out about the needs for the different communities, taking them back to CJTF-HOA and interacting with the engineering department and civilian affairs. We develop that bond, show we care: We’re going to drill a well, give you some shoes, clothing, dental hygiene.
I had the joy of meeting the grand mufti of Comoros Islands, who is the senior Islamic leader in the country, as well as meeting with senior Christian and Catholic leaders. It was a wonderful opportunity to share together the commonalities of people in need and how can we help.
They don’t have any resources or income from exports. A major problem is education – very small schools are shacks. They don’t produce their own food. So you teach them skills. You build schools.
Have you ever felt threatened? I’m a pretty thick-skinned person. The greatest fear I had was when a baboon got into our vehicle. He was hungry and he needed food. When he came in, we left. That was probably the most fear that I felt.
We have to be watchful. We know there’ve been threats against different elements in the Horn of Africa. We’re not dodging mortar or gunfire, but you can be downtown and a victim of terrorist bombing. You take the proper precautions.
What has surprised you? The warmth of reception I received everywhere I went. I thought people would be a lot more guarded. I was meeting with some pretty high leaders and they treated us with such incredible respect. I think they can see the honesty – I was real; I was true.
They really, truly see that CJTF-HOA is there to try to make positive difference in their lives and in the nations to bring a lasting peace and impact.
Even though I’m a Christian, they saw me as a man of God. Recognizing that, whether Islamic or orthodox, they know that I love them not only because of me, but because of my faith. They took that as a real positive thing. And that opened some great doors and windows.
It’s been one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life.