Jun 16, 2008, 5:00 AM
As defined by Christian doctrine, our neighbour is any living person, regardless of what religion, tribe, nationality or class they may belong to. This is reflected in the diversity of the needy persons who benefit from our outreach support programmes within the community over the years. In reality, in the Gambian context, every neighbour is like a brother or sister, and for members of the Knights of Saints Peter and Paul, each of whom has close relations who are Muslim, the religious divide is just a minor inconvenience. We go into mosques for marriage and funeral rites of our Muslim friends and relations, and they in turn come into churches to attend Christian rites for the same social functions. Exchanges of food and other gifts take place during all the major religious festivals in this country. This is one of the things that make The Gambia different in a positive way.
With this very peaceful and friendly religious co-existence in mind, it came as a disappointment for us, to say the least, when a Presidential declaration was made that The Gambia had become an Islamic State, with immediate effect. We knew that the declaration would bring no benefit to us as Christians; but also in our ignorance, wondered what special benefits it would bring to our Muslim brothers and sisters or the country at large. With the current rising trend of fanaticism in all religions worldwide, we became concerned about possible unintended negative consequences of this statement.
The declaration of The Gambia as an Islamic State is naturally not a welcome development within the Christian faithful. In a society so integrated like the Gambia’s, the move unfortunately places emphasis what makes us different, with a potential to tear us grievously apart, rather than what binds us together. We live together, inter-marry, have siblings across the religions, have traditional inter tribe and caste banters (‘kaal’), all in
the Gambian spirit of peaceful co-existence. Then all of a sudden, we are being made to look at each other differently across the religious divide.
The Christian community in The Gambia, though very small, has played a significant role in the development of this country from colonial times to date. The contributions of the three main Christian denominations in the area of education, health and agriculture have been well documented. There are also social welfare programmes of a charitable nature, some run by religious orders of Nuns, or the Society of St Vincent de Paul, at local community or national level, which because they are non-discriminatory, benefit mainly non-Christians.
Also, it can be argued that much of the social integration that we are all proud of today has its roots in Christian mission schools built and operated in different parts of the country from Banjul to Basse and Christi Kunda on the South bank of the Upper River Region; Schools that attracted children of Chiefs, village leaders and ordinary farming folks. In Banjul, Methodist Boys High School (later Gambia High School), St Augustine’s and St Joseph’s high schools provided opportunities for all Gambian children, irrespective of religion, to have secondary education and the springboard to tertiary studies and further training. Christian schools made it easier for young people from all over the country to come together for academic studies and to build life-long acquaintances and friendships with others outside their family, village, tribe, community or religious affinity. Some of these students from the Provinces lived with Christian families in the Banjul/Kombo areas, who cared for them as they did their own children, without religious consideration, except perhaps that their Christian religion taught them that all beings are equal in the eyes of God; and to love their neighbour as themselves. Products of these schools have held among the highest offices in this country, from pre independence to date, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, even if Christians are no longer sure of what the future holds for them in this their beloved country, The Gambia.
To say all will be well and fine, is to pretend not to know what developments of this nature have produced in other countries. Assurances are being given from official quarters here that Christians will continue to enjoy all the present freedoms of worship and other aspects of their lives. Governments can give even their most sincere assurances and efforts, but then somehow, over-zealous religious adherents may feel that government has not gone far enough in entrenching their faith and then take the law into their own hands. Most of the time the influence and support for these elements come from strong forces outside the country; forces stronger than even the Governments. We have seen these things happen in countries very close to us in the Africa region. Governments change too; or new policies may be promulgated, as in the examples of Brunei, Tajikistan and Somalia, where the celebration of Christmas was banned this past year, because the feast is for Christians and they have vast majority Muslim populations.
How can we be sure that the situation in The Gambia will be different? His Excellency the President’s declaration in Brufut had assured, among other things, that women would not be told how to dress, and that a Religious Police will not be set up to impose any mode of dressing. But less than a month after the Presidential announcement, an Executive directive was issued that all women in Government and quasi-government offices should cover their heads with a head tie because The Gambia is an Islamic State. No option was given to Christian women. Because of fear of losing their livelihood,
being sanctioned or that some form of religious policing would enforce the directive, Christian women complied. They had to change how they normally wanted to dress or risk being exorcised from Government employment; the Government of their own country. Happily the instruction was rescinded and all female civil servants were once more free to dress how they felt appropriate for an office environment. But it is still unsettling that the possibility exists for government to give directives of a religious nature that do not take into consideration their impact on one or other of the various religious groups.
Our fear is not of our Muslim brothers and sisters with whom Christians have amicably lived, worked, inter-married and socialised since living memory. It is the fear of the alien fringe elements, even from outside the country, who will consider this declaration as a window of opportunity to propagate intolerance. Some may even purport to speak or act with official authority. And as has happened, and is happening in other places, they resort to illegal and intimidating acts to achieve their goals. Of course, these elements always start with actions against minorities, but eventually their acts come to adversely affect everyone. So that in the end, it is the whole nation that loses.
Government’s duty, in our view, is to protect the welfare of all its people and to promulgate and implement just and equitable laws that promote religious freedom. But where one religion becomes the religion of Government, it becomes impossible to see how citizens of the country who belong to other faiths can enjoy full equitable treatment. In all cases where a country is known to be an Islamic state, Christians are discriminated against by law and/or practice. In all such cases, one’s value as a citizen is weighed against the religion one professes. That prospect is not reassuring to Christians in The Gambia, and it naturally engenders alarm.
The Government of The Gambia has an obligation to remove any feeling of unease among any section of the citizenry. Christians may be considered too tiny a minority whose voice may not matter in the decision to turn The Gambia into an Islamic State. But we expect that the equal rights and freedoms, without discrimination, of all citizens, as enshrined in the 1997 Constitution, will not be removed under a new dispensation. These guarantees have served this country very well. They have been the pillars of The Gambia’s well-earned good reputation as a haven of religious harmony, peace and stability. We hope that in the spirit of our National Anthem, justice will guide all action regarding this grave matter, towards the common good, so that Christians of The Gambia will continue to have the preservation of :
1) our full rights as citizens.
2) our mode of private and public religious practice;
3) the inviolability of our churches and other structures for worship;
4) our educational and other institutions;
5) our distinct social life, especially our celebrations, etc.
All religions preach respect for civic authority; and it’s a Christian injunction to always pray for our leaders in Government for health, strength and the wisdom to exercise their authority for the good of their country. We will therefore continue to do what we best know how to do, PRAY.
THE KNIGHTS OF SAINT PETER AND PAUL
Bertil Harding Highway