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December 2, 2010

Religion in Sub-Saharan Africa

The Canadian Charger

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In the Western media, sub-Saharan Africa is frequently portrayed as a place of violence, family breakdown, AIDS, and impoverishment. Yet Canadians who go there to visit or to help come back with impressions of deep and abiding strength and joy and astonishing hospitality.

That spirit of hope and resilience pervades a report prepared by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life entitled Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa, presented by Dr. Luis Lugo at a colloquium in Waterloo, Ontario on November 11.

A colour map of religious affiliation in Africa shows a clear divide along the tenth parallel, with Muslim-majority countries to the north of it and Christian-majority countries to the south.  This “fault line” cuts straight across Sudan and Nigeria and southern Chad, while from Ethiopia in the east to the countries of southern West Africa, there is an almost even mix of Muslims and Christians. 

In fact Nigeria – with 150 million people – has the highest number of Christians and the highest number of Muslims in all of Africa.

Do these fault lines have to be a cause of tension and conflict?  This is what the Pew Forum’s researchers set out to find out. 

The Pew Forum, based in Washington D.C., is noted among academics for gathering high-quality information on religious issues in society, by means of thorough-going surveys and personal interviews. But a major study far from the shores of the United States was a somewhat new departure for the nine-year-old organization.

  1. (Unfortunately they were not able to include Sudan at this time.)   The interviews took place from December 2008 to April 2009.

The first thing the interviewers found out was that religious commitment in these countries is far above that of all other continents on Earth.  Well over 80 % of respondents said that religion is “very important” in their lives.  Yet interestingly, despite a high degree of commitment to Christianity or Islam, almost 30 % of respondents also answered Yes to questions about traditional African religions, such as “Do you believe that sacrifices to spirits or ancestors can protect you from bad things happening?”

Dr. Lugo’s presentation was fast-paced and interesting, despite the large number of charts and graphs.  The 120 people packed into the atrium of Waterloo’s Centre for International Governance Innovation were very attentive and stayed for a long question and answer session.

The contrast between belief in traditional animist religions and the more recently adopted monotheistic faiths was only one of the baffling results the researchers found. 

Most respondents, both Muslim and Christian, said they believe the Qur’an or the Bible is the “literal word of God” and that Biblical or Sharia law should be the law of the land. 

High numbers stated that they believe Jesus will return during their lifetime, or that the Caliphate will be re-established during their lifetime.  But at the same time they said they believe that other faiths within their country are free to practice their religion, and that this is a good thing. 

They said they wanted their political leaders to be religiously committed persons, even if they belonged to the other faith from their own.  Many said that they, or their place of worship, have participated in interfaith meetings.

A Canadian Foreign Affairs official participating in the colloquium, Dr. Paul Freston, said Canada places high priority on convening interfaith conferences to help reduce tensions in the region. 

Dr. Ali Zaidi, a Global Studies professor from Wilfred Laurier University, said that encouraging religious pluralism, rather than trying to force a movement toward secularism, is more likely to be a fit for Africa, since the continent is “incorrigibly religious”.  He doubts whether the “absolutism” implied by some of the Africans’ responses is really as strident as it sounds, and said their ability to hold seemingly opposite ideas together is a good sign.

Dr. Jennifer Ball, from Conrad Grebel’s  Peace and Conflict Studies department at the University of Waterloo, said, “Tolerance is Africa’s gift to the world.” 

She believes that African traditions of living with diversity are much more abiding that the outer forms of Islam and Christianity which have been recently overlaid.  She concluded by quoting from a Mozambiquan elder, who said, “You can bring us a culture of war from a plane.  You can bring us humanitarian aid from a truck.  But you cannot bring us a culture of peace, because it is a tree with deep roots.” 

The depth of these roots of tolerance lying beneath the apparent diverging branches in Africa today is what this amazing study reveals.

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