Catholics Steer Delicate Course in Africa

source: The
Guardian

Catholics Steer Delicate Course in Africa

Monday April
18, 2005 8:01 AM

DANIEL BALINT-KURTI

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) – Winding its way across Africa
is an invisible faultline between a mainly Muslim north and a
majority Christian south.

Across this front, somewhere in the scrubland south
of the Sahara desert, tensions flare between increasingly strident
Christian movements aggressively working to convert people of
other faiths and an Islamic world wary of encroaching Western
influences.

When the two worlds collide – a Muslim takes offense
at a woman showing too much skin or a shop selling alcohol, a
Christian takes umbrage when a thief’s hand is chopped off – entire
villages can riot.

Africa’s billion people offer the largest field
of potential converts anywhere in the world, and the competition
for souls is fiercest between the continent’s two biggest religions
– Catholicism and Islam.

“The Vatican recognizes that in sub-Saharan Africa
you have the area where Muslims and Christians are most likely
to be confronting each other,” says John Voll, director of the
Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University
in Washington D.C.

“It is a high priority to make sure that those
Catholic interactions with Muslims don’t necessarily lead to open
conflict.”

But the ancient battle has exploded across an invisible
frontier that separates not just religions but also cultures and
major ethnic groups and ancient divisions between herders and
settled farmers.

The 21-year civil war that recently ended in Sudan
erupted when the Arab government imposed strict Islamic law opposed
by blacks in the south, where more than 4 million Catholics make
up 13 percent of the population. That war is blamed for more than
2 million deaths.

Tens of thousand of others have been killed across
religious faultline in conflicts in Liberia, Ivory Coast and Nigeria,
whose estimated 20 million Catholics are outnumbered on the continent
only by Congo’s 28 million-plus adherents.

British colonizers’ decision to rule northern Nigeria
through Muslim emirs while Irish Catholic missionaries proselytized
in the south has produced a nation where tribal divisions are
transcended only by religion.

Riots erupted in 2000 when mainly Muslim northern
states instituted Islamic law, including punishments of amputation
and death by stoning.

In 2002, more than 200 people died in Christian-Muslim
riots triggered by opposition to holding the Miss World competition
in Nigeria. This month, Nigerian newspapers have been full of
reports that Islamic leaders are preparing a violent jihad, which
they deny. Islamic leaders, meanwhile, complain Muslims are being
marginalized under a southern Christian president who ended 20
years of northern rule.

Pope John Paul II chose Nigeria’s most powerful
cleric, Cardinal Francis Arinze, to lead the church’s rapprochement
with other religions at a time when fundamentalist Islamic and
Protestant sects replaced communism as the biggest challenge to
Catholic proselytizing.

Arinze, whom some consider a top contender for pope,
took the route of stressing Islam and Catholicism’s common fight
against sexual permissiveness and contraception.

“Authentic dialogue demands that Muslims and Christians
accept one another with all their similarities and differences,”
he told students at Roman Catholic Georgetown University in Washington
D.C. in 1993.

He added: “Muslim-Christian relations are challenged
and obstructed by religious fanaticism or extremism.”

More extreme forms of Christianity and Islam are
gaining strength in Africa, raising the risk of more confrontation,
especially as the two sides compete for converts from each other’s
camps as the ranks of followers of traditional animist religions
shrink.

The Rev. Matthew Hassan Kukah, an influential Nigerian
Catholic priest, reserves his most trenchant criticism for evangelical
Christians rather than Muslims, saying they are promoting a materialist
view of Christianity and stoking tensions by behaving “as if
they were out to convert everyone.”

Muslims have rioted when evangelical churches hold
football-stadium gatherings.

“There is too much aggressive evangelization,”
says Latif Adegbite, secretary-general of Nigeria’s National Supreme
Council for Islamic Affairs.

But Islam is also on the march, and today the religious
faultline on the continent is shifting south.

“The Catholic Church has become aware that Islam
has become a serious alternative” in Central and well as West
Africa, said Voll. To face competition from Islam, he says, the
church will need to “reconstruct itself as a refuge for people
in times of social crisis.”

The Catholic Church failed that test recently during
the genocide in Rwanda, where some churches that offered sanctuary
were turned into slaughterhouses and some Catholic priests actively
participated in the killings.

John Paul II refused to apologize, saying the church
could not be blamed for the actions of individual priests.

Islam offers a route more compatible with African
tradition, especially by allowing polygamy. Some Catholic Africans
marry their first wife in the church, then take second wives in
traditional ceremonies.

Associated Press writers Michelle Faul in Dakar,
Senegal, and Rodrique Ngowi in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to
this story.

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