Jun 24, 2011, 2:23 PM
The general topic of Inter-Faith Relations or sometimes called Inter-Religious Dialogue is a very topical issue in our world today. This is because it affects our world which is greatly influenced by religious faith convictions. Also issues bordering around this topic are very sensitive and can resort out to violence, terrorist acts and even war between nations when not well handled.
In this article, I have decided to use the terminology, interfaith relations instead of inter-faith dialogue because dialogue limits itself to communication only. My paper will be divided into an introduction and five sections. After this introduction, section two will deal with a definition of terms of explain the topic. Section three will dwell on the inter-faith relations in the Diocese of Banjul. Section four will highlight on the effects of inter-faith relations and its set backs. Finally, section five will give recommendations that will be necessary for a fruitful inter-faith relations
A Conclusion will follow.
DEFINITION OF TERMS:
The terms inter-faith relations refers to the relationship established and nurtured among peoples of different faiths such as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hundus, Bahais and African Traditional Religions. The Inter-faith relations in this paper presentation is limited to that of Christians and Muslims. The peoples of the different faiths in their relations with each other realize their need for each other. They cannot live ignoring or avoiding one another or living in constant conflict. Thus their need to foster and maintain inter-faith relations.
Inter-faith relations are defined in four ways. One way is called relations-of-life where people live ordinarily because they live together in close communities and share a lot in common. Secondly, there is the relations-of-work, where people come together to share task or work which brings them earnings for their living. Thirdly, there is relations-of-study and exchange where people of different faiths come together to study and exchange about each others’ faith teachings. This is on the level of scholarly relations. Lastly, there is the relations-of-prayer where people are drawn towards the act of praying for a communal cause or reason. This we have seen or known about in the inter-faith prayers in the town of Assisi initiated by the Late Pope John Paul II and even recently the call to an inter-faith prayer by Pope Benedict XVI. Sometime ago in The Gambia too, there was drought in some parts of the country and all religious leaders were asked to pray. In Basse, there was an integral gathering which brought all to come together and pray.
Thus Inter-faith relations does not necessarily have to be seen in one particular way because it involves all these four ways. Sometimes all four ways may not be there but there could be progress from one to another.
INTER-FAITH RELATIONS IN THE DIOCESE OF BANJUL:
The Diocese of Banjul is an Episcopal jurisdiction that exist in the nation called The Gambia in West Africa. According to the records of the 2003 national census, the population of The Gambia is 1.5 million people. On this number just over 90% are Muslims and Christians make a percentage of 6% and the rest are adherents of African Traditional Religions. The different tribes that make up the people of The Gambia are Wollof, Fula, Mandinka, Jola, Serer, Manjagos, Keroninkas, Mankagne, Blantas and Maswankas. The Mankanges, Maswankas, Balantas, Manjagos and Keroninkas are the minority tribes which are open to the church and are also linked with the African Traditional Religions. They are not easy converts to Islam. Their life style is seminomadic because they move from place to place but their origins are Southern Senegal region of Casamance, Guinea Bissau or Guinea Conakry. These tribal people make the great population of the Catholic and Christian Communities and all the Catholic Clergy come from them.
The Inter-faith relations as defined in the relations-of-life has been a way of life for the different communities and so dates a long time in history. The reason behind this is the natural phenomenon that bound the people. The people are one the same and in many ways you see families divided only by religious faith ties. So the inter-faith relations-of-life are just a natural phenomenon because people live in the same homes, go to the same market, work in the same farms and go to each other’s festivities or bereavement. Also there is inter-marriage among peoples of the different faiths. In the schools built by Christian Missionaries in the name of the Church, both Christian and Muslim children are accepted in them and so young people learn to live and relate with one another.
As with the inter-faith relations-of-work the peoples of the two faiths often share the same fields or offices in government.
In some of our Presbyteries and schools, Muslims gain employment and work without being discriminated. The relationship that is portrayed is mostly cordial and good on both sides and this renders the credibility of the church and its stance in the society. The inter-faith relations in this manner stands out as the true witness which the church offers to society. In many ways the minority nature of the church is not seen and because of this the church normally stands on equal footing with the Muslim majority
On the inter-faith relations expressed through the heads of faiths, Bishops and Imams, a noteworthy period was in 1981 when Bishop Michael J. Cleary was ordained. At his ordination this was what Bishop Cleary said, “I greet in a special way my many Muslim friends who are here today. We have shown in The Gambia that Muslims and Christians can live in close esteem for one another and respect each other’s belief. This country is an example to the rest of the world for freedom of religion and the very happy relationships that exists between those who believe in One God, Lord of us all”.
Bishop Cleary was the champion of Inter-faith relations in The Gambia through his initiatives true to his words, he began visiting and meeting with the Imam Ratib in Banjul. He manifested his convictions into an annual occurrence of visits to the Imam and also presented the Pope’s Ramadan greetings to Muslims in the world. Bishop Cleary retained this practice of inter-faith relations in his 25 years of tenure as Bishop in The Gambia and this practice continued till date. In fact the relations became stronger and mutual. Bishop Ellison, the present Bishop has also followed up this trend. The exemplary acts of the Bishops and Imams were endorsed by adherents of both faiths who saw the example as something worth of emulation and they in turn are copying the good examples of the heads of religions. On feast days of Muslims and Christians, all peoples of the two faiths congratulate and celebrate with each other. Of recent some Muslims extended invitations to Christians to attend night prayer vigils.
To conclude this section, I would also love to mention the ecumenical efforts of The Gambia Christian Council in Inter-faith relations in the diocese of Banjul. The Catholic Church is a member of The Gambia Christian Council. The Gambia Christian Council has a sub-committee on Inter-Church and Inter-Faith relations which collaborates with the programmes for Christian Muslim Relations in Africa (PROCMURA).
This sub-committee works hand in hand with the PROCMURA and effect activities that enable greater cooperation between Christians and Muslims. They had worked together to bring youths of the different faiths to undergo studies in the Islamic religion, organize seminars to which they invite Muslim scholars to speak to Christians ministers about Islam and also offer workshops for Christian women in Muslim marriages to help them in their marriages. The Christian Council together with the Bishop of the diocese of Banjul also amicably worked out peaceful solution to a problematic situation of Muslim girls wearing veils in Christians schools in the year 2003. The problem could have reared some difficult situation and misunderstanding for the people of the two faiths but thank God the government and the heads of the two religions sat and talked. Through the good counsels of the heads of religions, the President was able to make a balanced statement to appease the situation in July 2004.
THE EFFECTS OF INTER-FAITH RELATIONS AND ITS SET BACKS:
Form the foregoing section, a lot of expressions of good inter-faith relations is seen to exist in the diocese of Banjul and in The Gambia. The Gambia is a very small country and so the diocese of Banjul. It is blessed with its uniqueness for being small and Bishop Cleary used to say “being small is beautiful”. Its people are of different back grounds but a united people. Culturally, spiritually, politically and socially there are variances but the people are one and the same. The people of the two different faiths of Christianity and Islam live with one another and inter marry and so the effects of the inter-faith relations are evident. In some homes, or even houses, there are families that only divide by faith expressions but they live under one roof. In their inter-faith relations the people of the two faiths in The Gambia live out their common lives in their homes, the farms and fields they work, the school they go and share the sad and sweet moments at funerals and feast day celebrations. Both the church, Islam and the state in general need to safe guard this and show it to the rest of the world. The only thing that may come as a set back is for all parties to let go and allow foreign influence to interfere as in the issue of the veils with Muslim girls in the year 2003.
The youth category of the diocese and the nation as a whole are given the good inter-faith relations through the work of The Gambia Christian Council. This has good effects to it because so far we have not seen or heard of Christian or Muslim youths go on a rampage to create religious strife as it happened in other parts of the sub-region especially in Nigeria. Youths can be easy targets of manipulation with regard to religious tension and conflict. A set back will only come when we do not allow a closeness of our youths in both religions in our inter-faith relations.
In the inter-faith relations in The Gambia, a note worthy relation is that of PROCMURA where Christian women in Muslim marriages are ministered to. This is also an effect of good inter-faith relations. Many of these women gain a lot of confidence in what the church is doing. For some of them this inter-faith relations had enabled them to come back to the church which they professed to have left. In most cases the women in such situations still have the church in their hearts but they only are out of it due to marriage.
If they had Christian men to marry them then they will remain in the church. The set back here is that the Church sometimes neglect to come out to minister to women in Muslim marriages and so we end up loosing these women to leave the church completely. In as much as the Christians Council is helping in this way, the Catholic Church should come all out to foster inter-faith relations in this manner. So as we see the effects of good inter-faith relations, the under lying factor is for both sides to create less situation of suspicion so that the relations can be cordial. There can be suspicion if foreign interference and influence is allowed in by both parties. Muslims may come up with an agenda of the Alkaedas which may be unknown until an explosion appears or suicide bombing become rampant as in other parts of the world. Also suspicion may come forth when the urgent call for evangelization is pursued and the process of wanting to make Muslims Christians is forced upon them as in the agenda of the emerging Pentecostal or Evangelical churches in The Gambia. Inter-faith relations is another form of evangelization. The Late Pope John Paul II acknowledge good inter-faith relations in these words: “The non Christian world is indeed constantly before the eyes of the church and the Pope. We are truly committed to serve it generously”.
RECOMMENDATION FOR FRUITFUL INTER-FAITH RELATIONS:
Earlier, I have expounded on what Inter-faith relations is and also showed examples of it in the diocese of Banjul. From what I have presented, I see it as the mission of the Church to always bring into reality the vision of the Second Vatican Council, in the teaching of Nostra Aetate, the declaration on the relations of the Church to Non Christian religions. The Second Vatican Council’s declaration, Nostra Aetate gives clear indications that inspire the church for its inter-faith relations. These are spelt out as: respect for one’s personal conscience, rejection of all forms of coercion or discrimination with regard to faith, freedom to practice one’s religion and give witness to it, as well as appreciation and esteem for all genuine religious traditions.
The Church whether in The Gambia or not should foster and maintain this vision which is necessary for good inter-faith relations where Christians are a minority. Under many circumstances sometimes the church may not see growth in terms of numbers but reflecting its presence and the presence of Christ who died for all is necessary. In saying this, our inter-faith relations should not be a shy relationship where we keep Christ politely out of the picture. In as much as all parties in the inter-faith relations have their convictions, these should be manifested. The Council document the Church in the modern world states “since Christ died for all (Rom. 8:32) and since all men are in fact called to one end and the same destiny, which is divine we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God in the paschal mystery” (Gaudium et spes 22)
The fact that inter-faith relations are evident in the universal church and in The Gambia in particular, every agent of evangelization is called to it. Be they Bishops, Priests, Religious, Catechists or Lay faithful all are called to it. No one should be seen carrying out the ministry of the church neglecting it especially in our conference or sub-region of West Africa. We live with Muslims in our communities and they live with us. Thus the need for inter-faith relations. The Late Pope John Paul II in his many travels had highlighted the importance in inter-faith relations. This he has shown by calling up and meeting Muslims wherever he visited during his pastoral visits. In his never forgotten visit to Senegal, Guinea Conakry and The Gambia in February 1992 he cherished meeting with the Muslims of these three countries.
In The Gambia, on the 23rd February 1992 at the mass at the Independence stadium, he lauded the excellent ties between Christians and Muslims. He expressed great sentiments on what he came and saw and upheld The Gambia as an example to the rest of the world for inter-faith relations expressed through mutual peaceful co-existence and tolerance.