African Bishops Discuss Islam

Affirm Need for Dialogue, Religious Freedom

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Jesús Colina

VATICAN CITY, OCT. 23, 2009 ( The bishops who spoke at the Synod for Africa sometimes used different and divergent tones when speaking of Islam, but they agreed on need for dialogue and religious liberty.
Monsignor Joseph Bato’ora Ballong Wen Mewuda, the synod’s spokesman for the French language, affirmed this, and noted the difference of expressions between the bishops of North Africa and those of Sub-Saharan Africa.
These differences are reflected in the conclusions of the working groups of the Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, which will conclude on Sunday.

These conclusions of the working groups, each made up of some 20 members, were reported on by the relator of one of the French-speaking groups, Father Gerard Chabanon, superior-general of the Missionaries of Africa, formerly known as the White Fathers.
He noted that the bishops of North Africa were “prudent” when it came to denouncing incidents of restriction to religious liberty in their communities.
For example, in his intervention focused on young Sub-Saharan students in the Maghreb, Archbishop Vincent Landel of Rabat, Morocco, president of the North African bishops’ conference, said that these youth “discover a world where Islam is societal and where there is practically no religious freedom.”

Different realities
Bishop Maroun Elias Lahham of Tunis, Tunisia, observed that the Instrumentum Laboris gave little space to discussing Islam, and did so “in generic terms.”
He pointed out that “almost 80% of the 350 million Muslim Arabs live in Northern African countries,” which means that “Islamic-Christian relations in North Africa are different from those in Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, and even from the Arab countries in the Middle East.”
The prelate stated that “this specificity of experience of the North African Churches consists” in the fact that it is “a Church of encounter.” He explained, “Even if she does not have the freedom she would hope for, she is not persecuted.”
The bishop continued: “It is a Church that lives in almost 100% Muslim countries, and where the overwhelming majority of faithful are made up of foreigners who only stay there for a few years, for the most part.”
He stated that “it is a Church that lives in Muslim countries where there is the beginning of critical thinking with regards to rigorous and fanatical Islam.”
The bishop of Tunis ended by calling for “a discussion about Islam in Africa and that bears in mind the variety of African experiences, from Tunis to Johannesburg.”
At a meeting with journalists, Monsignor Ballong Wen Mewuda explained that, in general, the bishops of Sub-Saharan Africa have insisted on the need to establish an open dialogue with Islam in order to affirm the fundamental right of religious liberty.
At the same time, in these geographic areas, where in general Muslims are not the majority, increasingly dynamic attempts have been made to Islamize the peoples, he said.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said that in Africa “Islam advances constantly due to three means: brotherhoods, Quran schools and mosques.”
At an informal meeting with journalists on Oct. 21, Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, archbishop of Cape Coast, Ghana, said that the bishops regard this expansion attempt as a “threat,” which at times is above all on a political level.
Archbishop Norbert Wendelin Mtega of Songea, Tanzania, said to the synodal assembly: “We love Muslims. It is our history and culture to live with them. But the danger which threatens Africa’s freedom, sovereignty, democracy and human rights is first the Islamic political factor, in other words, the intended plan and the clear process of ‘identifying Islam with politics and vice versa’ in each of our African countries.”
Secondly, he added, “it is the Islamic monetary factor whereby huge sums of money from outside countries are being poured in our countries to destabilize peace in our countries and to eradicate Christianity.”
Bishop Arlindo Gomes Furtado of Santiago de Cabo Verde [Cape Verde] lamented the “great investment in the promotion of Islam in the only Catholic country of the region.”
However, as the working group moderated by Father Gerard Chabanon reported in its conclusions, although the reality of Islam is different throughout Africa, the attitude that Christians should promote is the same: “a dialogue of life and a social dialogue.”
The group added, “It has been strongly emphasized that we must always seek liberty of conscience and the reciprocity of worship.”

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