Working and Walking together.
A Christian Reflection
Chidi Denis Isizoh
This paper begins with some
assumptions. Interreligious dialogue is a term already widely used to describe
relations between people of different religious traditions. It is “meeting
people themselves and getting to know their religious traditions”. It
involves “interaction of mutual presence”; “speaking and listening”;
and “witnessing the commitments, the values, the rituals of others”.
It is “a meeting of people of differing religions, in an atmosphere of
freedom and openness, in order to listen to the other, to try to understand
the person’s religion, and hopefully to seek possibilities of
The following constitute the key elements of interreligious relations:
“reciprocal communication”, “attitude of respect and friendship”,
“all positive and constructive relations with individuals and communities of
other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment, in
obedience to truth and respect for freedom”, “witness and exploration of
respective religious convictions”.
The spirit that must animate interreligious dialogue includes: consistency
with one’s religious traditions and convictions; openness to understand
people of other religious traditions without pretence, prejudice, and
close-mindedness; honesty; humility and frankness; renunciation of rigid
principles; avoidance of false irenicism; intolerance and misunderstandings;
realisation that dialogue leads to inner purification and ongoing conversion.
The world has become a
“global village” in which barriers in communication are broken down by
science and technology.
, in spite of her slow progress,
is part of this “global village”. In this village, people of all walks of
life meet. The meeting of people of different religions take many forms:
simple living together, sharing of daily life experiences; collaboration in
undertaking projects of common interest; engagement in academic/theological
discussions; and sharing of deep spiritual values.
I propose for reflection some simple issues that may interest those who
may eventually find themselves in the religiously pluralist societies of
— How many
religions operate in the area and where?
— How do followers of different religions relate among themselves?
— Which direction does interreligious dialogue lead all the partners?
Answers to these questions will guide the contents of my presentation.
2. Religions in sub-Saharan Africa
Statistics of the presence of Religions
is considered “a mosaic of religions”. Two years ago David Barrett and his
companions published a new edition of their already well-known work, World
Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of Churches and Religions in the
It is the most extensive and best, so far, published work on religions in the
Being an African and interested in what is happening on my continent,
especially in the religious sphere, I quickly compiled the entries on
. According to this work, the
following religions are identified in
with over a hundred thousand adherents: African Traditional Religion,
Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Baha’i, and Judaism.
Encyclopaedia goes further to give figures for followers of these religions:
African Traditional Religion: 96.805.405 (12.3%)
Christianity: 360.232.182 (45.9%)
Islam: 317.374.423 (40.5%)
Hinduism: 2.351.390 (0.3%)
Baha’i: 1.732.816 (0.2%)
Judaism: 214.055 (less than 0.1%)
Buddhism: 134.409 (less than 0.1%)
many reasons, it is difficult to have accurate figures. As I explained
elsewhere, it is almost impossible to have an accurate census of religious
. Many countries in
do not have columns for religious beliefs in the census data form. While for
the Europeans, figures help to establish the criterion for the distribution of
common resources and for assessing the popularity of policies, for most
Africans who depend on self help, calculating numbers would be useless, and a
waste of time and money. Indeed
among most ethnic groups, human beings are never to be counted.
Many parents would be very reluctant to tell a visitor the number of
children they have. There could be religious reasons for this hesitation.
Caution is, therefore, needed when quoting population figures in
Despite these comments, what David Barrett and his group give is a
working statistic. It comes approximately to the true situation on the ground.
I have had occasion to listen to many people, especially Bishops and officials
of Catholic Secretariats, from different countries of
and what they say corroborates what is found in the Encyclopaedia of Barrett et
2.2. African Traditional
Traditional Religion is a religion which has been practised in
from time immemorial. It is also described as “the religious and cultural
context from which most Christians in
come and within which they still live”
Hinduism, Judaism, and Baha’i
and Judaism have restricted membership and they are not missionary religions.
Baha'i have their largest and strategically located hall of meeting in
. It is said that the religion allows members to belong to multiple religions.
But its members are not found in many countries of
Christianity, and Islam: A Trio of Missionary Religions in
, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism exercise very strong influence. Although
Buddhism is not in many countries, the members have put in place some
missionary strategies for expansion, starting from
. What the three religions have in common is the goal of winning new members.
They, therefore, constitute what I have called “A Trio of Missionary
In 1992, the Bronkhorstspruit
, donated 15 hectares of land to the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order to be
developed into a Chinese Buddhist, Cultural, and Educational Complex. Ven.
Master Hsing Yun sent one of his long-time disciples, Ven. Master Hui Li, to
in Bronkhorstspruit, to attain these goals and promote Buddhism on the African
continent. Since then, the Nan Hua Temple Guesthouse, African Buddhist
, Assembly Hall , Zen Retreat Centre have been completed and are continuously
Seminary is for the training future monks. According to the information on the
website of the monastery,
there are about 14 monks and nuns from the Fo Guang Shan Order teaching in
. Novice monks come from
and they are studying at
monastery has branch temples in
. The programme of this monastery is very clear. “In future we plan to open
more branches in other major cities throughout
and other African countries. Those who come to us to learn more about Buddhism
and enter the Order for training as monks will continue their training in
after finishing their three year program here. These Africans are the people
who will be responsible for spreading Buddhism in
, if they believe Buddhism is of value to this continent and its people.”
is another Buddhist foundation, which is of Theravada tradition, coming from
. They now operate in
Dar es Salaam
growth of the population of Buddhists in
in recent times is significant:
of Buddhists in
The 1994 great assembly of the Catholic Bishops for the African Synod
was an important demonstration of the commitment of the Catholic Church to
spread the Christian religion in
. The theme of the Synod said it all “The Church in
and her Evangelising Mission toward the Year 2000”. Through the programme
for Evangelisation 2000, an effort was made to prepare the continent as
a gift to Christ in the third millennium.
, during the 1998 Assembly, the World Council of Churches rededicated itself
to “the African dream and agenda for the 21st century”.
It declared: “We are proud in seeing a vision of the journey of hope
of African Churches for the development of the continent for the 21st
century…. We are determined to
work out this vision that promises life with dignity for the African
people”. Among the areas mapped out for concentration are:
- focus on the
religious heritage of Africa, hoping that this would lead to a greater
understanding between Christians and people of other faiths and open new
avenues for interaction and co-operation between peoples of faith;
- throw light
upon the continued vitality of the religious heritage of
in religious traditions in various parts of the world.
The steady growth of Christianity is evident from the following
of Christians in
has existed in sub-Saharan
for a long time embedded in the culture and sharing in some aspects of the
African worldview. Some of the Muslims have the vision of taking the religion
beyond their immediate confines. Until recently, there was not a clear and
articulated desire to take possession of the whole continent of
. The impression given now is that this has changed. With financial support
from some Muslim countries outside the sub-Saharan region, there has been a
significant missionary engagement of Muslims in social projects (notably in
education, healthcare, and erection of places of worship). A number of
important Muslim leaders have openly tried to sell the idea that Islam is for
Africa and Christianity is for
. The international conference organised in November 1989 at Abuja by the
Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs together with Islamic Council of
London and other important international organisations was an attempt to focus
world attention on the point that “Africa constitutes a great Islamic
potentiality” which should be “exploited”.
Many investments and projects on the continent have this motive as their
Muslim population is spread in most countries of the sub-Saharan region.
have the highest percentage of Muslims, ranging from 75 to 90% of the
population. They are followed by
, from 50 to 75%.
come next, 25 to 50%.
, from 10 to 20%. All the other countries of sub-Saharan Africa, including
, have less than 10% of their population as Muslims.
to David Barrett et al there
is a steady growth of the population of Muslims in
of Muslims in
Interreligious relations in Africa
Sometime ago, out of
curiosity, I keyed in the phrase “interreligious dialogue” and clicked on
a button of Google search engine and what came out was astonishing:
22,000 entries. Then narrowing the search, I typed in “interreligious
”. What I got was 5,200 entries. This means that 25% of the world’s
interest in interreligious dialogue is devoted to
alone. For many reasons, interest in dialogue among religions is expected to
be high. Many people are interested in what followers of different religions
records available indicating frequency of occurrence,
could be described as the number one theatre for religious conflicts in the
world. Many religiously motivated conflicts have taken place on this
continent. It is true that most of these conflicts have many sources, which
include poor, corrupt, and inept leadership; exaggerated ethnic affiliation,
religious extremism, etc. In itself religion does not generate conflicts. It
is often the manipulation of religion and religious sentiments that leads to
tension and could degenerate into violent conflicts. On the list of countries
with a record of violent conflicts, with a tint of religious motivation, would
have to be included:
, etc. Some of these countries have had several rounds of violent conflicts.
, for example, many lives have been lost, many mosques and churches have been
torched, on several occasions in which Christians and Muslims have fought
against one another especially in the north. Numerically,
has the highest number of Muslims in the sub-Saharan region. The country
presents a unique case, perhaps not seen anywhere in the world. While in most
countries the balance of the numerical strength always tilts in favour of one
religion or another, in
there is a near balance between the number of Christians and of Muslims. This
fact has prompted Archbishop Teissier of
to describe the country as “the greatest Islamo-Christian nation in the
Another example is
. This time it is between followers of African Traditional Religion and
Christians. Homowo is an annual festival celebrated by the Ga people of
. The word “Homowo” actually means 'making fun of hunger.' Traditional
oral history describes a time long ago when rain stopped and sea closed its
gates. A deadly famine spread throughout the southern Accra Plains, the home
of the Ga people. When the harvest finally arrived and food became plentiful,
the people were so happy that they celebrated with a festival that ridiculed
hunger. The Homowo festival starts with the planting of crops before the May
rainy season and continues through August. The actual time for the August
celebration is determined by the Chief Priests after consulting with the
Lagoon Oracles. Sometime in June there is a total ban on noise throughout the
State, and fishing is limited to certain days. It is this ban on noise that
has brought the adherents of the Ga traditional religion into conflict with
some Christians who beat drums in their Churches during worship. On 15, 29 and
30 May, 2002, groups of men attacked
that were not observing the drumming ban. Some Church equipment was stolen and
facilities were vandalised. A number of persons were injured.
Despite many of these conflicts, most followers of different religions
live and work together quietly. Sometimes the news media do not report these
Daily life sharing
is not a homogenous society. There is a variety of cultures and customs.
Although similarities could be detected, there are different worldviews. And
many factors contribute to shape these worldviews; chief among them is the
traditional religion. The diversity in Africa is particularly striking if we
take a look at a country like
. The north is largely inhabited by the Hausas and Fulanis. But there are many
many other ethnic groups. The southwest is the home of the Yorubas. Both
Muslims from the north and from the southwest come from the same stock. But
there is a radical difference in their attitude to life and their spirit of
the Yorubas a family of many members could have mixed religious affiliations
(Christianity, Islam, African Traditional Religion, etc.), yet they live
happily together. They easily accept their differences. Their attitude to life
is “live and let live”. This is not always the case in many parts of
, especially the extreme northwest.
could be described as one of the smallest and, perhaps, poorest of the
. The majority of the population is Muslim (over 90%). Yet there is peace and
harmony among the Muslim majority and the Christian minority. Often people of
different religions inter-marry and each partner shares with the other the
highest positive family values of his or her religion.
Ignorance is one of the major causes of conflicts and tension in many
communities. Who is my neighbour of another religious tradition? What does
he/she believe in? Why does he do what he does? Why does she behave the way
she does? Lack of information about the other leads to suspicion and
misinterpretation of the other person’s action. Fighting ignorance is very
important. People are educated through several means: formal education in
schools, use of radio and television, personal exchange at home, in places of
work and common meeting places, etc.
is one of the islands in the United Republic of Tanzania. It used to be
considered as “a centre for the juju traditions of medicine and magic” but
was seized in the 17th century by the Sultan of Muscat (now
). It is, therefore, a strong Muslim domain. It is extremely difficult to
belong to another religion apart from Islam.
There is a Catholic Bishop in
. Augustine Shao, who looks after
. He has a vision for his diocese. He wants to invest in schools and
healthcare services. Muslims suspect that he wants to use the schools to
convert their children to Christianity. But this is far from the Bishop’s
idea of establishing educational institutions. Muslim children will still
receive instructions in the religion of their parents, and so too will
Christians. The school will provide an environment for interreligious exchange
among the children. They relate among themselves as human beings. They learn
to trust one another and to work together. After staying together in the same
school for several years, the children learn not to fear one another.
Bishop Shao’s school is a preparation for a better future in which
interreligious relations will flourish.
The experiment of such schools of mixed religion has proved effective
in many countries like
, etc., where though Christians are in the minority, they have built several
schools and admit many Muslim children. The same would be possible in Muslim
schools, especially where no person is deliberately forced to convert to the
religion of the founding religious institution.
Tamale is a town in northern
. It is a Muslim stronghold. It has an Interreligious Dialogue Committee with
a Muslim as the Chairman and a Christian religious Sister as
Coordinator/Secretary. Members go
to schools to teach students about the points that unite Christians and
Muslims, and areas of differences. They buy airtime and use FM radio station
to hold discussions on interreligious relations.
, the Catholic Church has two radio stations: Radio Encontro in Nampula
and Radio Watana in Nacala. Muslims are often invited to give their
points of view on national and local issues. Using radio and other modern
means of communication to promote interreligious dialogue is important.
Cardinal Polycarp Pengo
of Dar es Salaam three weeks ago, at a Consultation organised by the
Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue for its close collaborators in
Africa, expressed gratitude to God for enabling “ingenuity among human
beings”, who have made it possible “to grasp the whisper of someone across
the ocean or read a book from the most distant library…(by pressing) the
appropriate button on one’s radio or computer”. He remarked that “the
problem facing the modern means of communication today is that good news in
itself is not considered as news worthy of communicating. The news worth
communicating is that which will sell. And since bad news seems more palatable
to the world of today, good news tend to be passed over in silence or
distorted to be bad enough to sell.” For relations among people of different
religious traditions, the Cardinal emphasised that “the starting point for
any interreligious dialogue communication today must have the courage to swim
against the current of commercialising news.
Modern means of communication must learn to communicate in the first
place what is good and respectable about all religions.”
4.3. Social Welfare, Justice and Peace
There is so much injustice in our world today. Different religions in
are often expected to speak against the oppression of the poor, exploitation
of the weak in society, and act as arbiters in case of disputes.
is a country of over ten million inhabitants of which about 76.8% are
Christians, 14.8% are Muslims and 7.8% belong to followers of African
Traditional Religion. In response to the Catholic Bishops’ letter of March
1992, which won the support of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP)
and other religious bodies, a process of transition from one party rule to
multiparty democracy was ushered in. A group, comprising the Malawi Council of
Churches, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malawi, and the Muslim
Association of Malawi, was formed and became known as the Public Affairs
Committee. This Committee has as its scope encouraging religious bodies to
fulfil their prophetic role in responding to the social and political affairs
of the country; mediating in cases of misunderstanding among members of
religious bodies; and safeguarding the rule of law and human rights in the
society. The group was instrumental in translating a popular desire for
political change into reality between 1992 and the first General Election in
1994. It remains in the forefront in safeguarding the hard-won democracy in
. Activities, such as advocacy, institutional confidence building among
Malawians, workshops on gender and civic education, have been implemented.
NAIREC stands for Nigerian Inter-Religious Council. The Council
was established about three years ago, at the initiative of the Christian
leaders and with the full and enthusiastic support of the government of
, as a forum for dialogue between Christian and Muslim leaders at the highest
level. It is meant to advise the government on national issues that affect the
interest of different religions, especially Christianity and Islam, in
5. Walking together
I started this paper by giving some indications of what we have assumed
as a description of interreligious dialogue. When Pope John Paul II, in his
encyclical, Redemptoris Missio (1990), declared that “Interreligious
Dialogue is a part of the evangelising
of the Church,”
some of our dialogue partners, at first reading, were frightened. It was like
an affirmation of their worst fears about the interest of the Catholic Church
in promoting interreligious dialogue as tactics for conversion to
Christianity. But that statement of the Pope was a conclusion of a long
discussion, spanning through a period of time, in the Church on the meaning of
the mandate which Christ gave to his disciples to evangelise the whole world
(Mat. 28, 18-20).
The Church is sent by
Jesus Christ to all human beings to announce the Good News of salvation and
reconciliation with God. The meaning of evangelisation and the mission of the
Church in the world is broad and inclusive. In 1984, The Pontifical Council
for Interreligious Dialogue published a small booklet, entitled Attitude of
the Church towards the
Followers of Other Religions: Reflections and Orientations on Dialogue and
Mission. In order to explain the place of dialogue in the context of the
overall mission of the Church, the document introduces various ways “the
church makes itself fully present to all persons and peoples”:
simple presence and living witness of the Christian life, commitment to the
service of mankind and all forms of activity for social development and for
the struggle against poverty and the structures which produce it, liturgical
life, prayer and contemplation, interreligious dialogue and proclamation of
the Gospel and catechesis. Interreligious dialogue, therefore, is one of the
forms of the mission of the Church.
But interreligious dialogue is not a remote preparation for conversion
to another religion. It is rather an expression of respect for the other. It
is about making people better human beings. It leads to better appreciation of
one’s religious commitments, to mutual understanding of believers, and to
active engagement in the service of “brothers and sisters”. Thus,
engagement in interreligious dialogue leads to a better horizontal
relationship with others.
goes further. It reaches a deeper spirit of communication, leading towards a
vertical relationship with God. It becomes a response in faith to God. As Pope
John Paul II explained in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (1979),
the courage to engage in dialogue is an affirmation of confidence in the grace
of God operating in and through the Church.
its vertical dimension, interreligious dialogue leads to conversion of the
heart to God. All dialogue partners are pilgrims on the way to discover God,
the absolute Truth, through fellow human beings. According to Piero Coda of
the Lateran University of Rome, “the conversion of the heart brings forth a
demanding and liberating spirituality, capable of engendering the great art of
the dialogue of salvation, in all of its wonderful potential.”
He goes further to explain: “a converted heart knows how to look at the
other through the eyes of God, like a son loved by the Father, like a brother
or a sister called to be welcomed, with everyone else, into God’s bosom….
(T)he conversion of the heart makes one capable of grasping and
welcoming the presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the one who is
before us, both because of his personal path towards God and the experience of
God that he has had and cultivated, and because of the many graces deposited
and renewed by the religious tradition to which he belongs.”
To sum up all
that this paper wants to demonstrate, there are many religions in
. Even though from time to time conflicts motivated by religious sentiments
take place, people of different religions on the continent generally, without
much publicity, live together peacefully. They work together in
projects of common concern and they walk together as pilgrims towards
as conversion to God is not something that shows an immediate visible result.
It cannot be demonstrated, as I have done in the case of collaboration among
people of different religious traditions in
. But it is an essential goal that must be kept in mind in all interreligious