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‘Christian-Muslim harmony has been brewed in an African pot’

16 March 2018

Africa has much to teach the world about religious co-existence, writes Johnson Mbillah

USPG/Leah Gordon

A boy wears a Catholic T-shirt and Muslim skullcap, in Lichinga, Mozambique.

A boy wears a Catholic T-shirt and Muslim skullcap, in Lichinga, Mozambique.

“TO YOU your religion, to me mine.” So says the Qur’an (Q. 109.6). Such an attitude makes for peace and good will between neighbours; and the Qur’anic recognition of religious diversity is important for the thinking of many Muslims, since God could have chosen to make human beings a single people with a single religion.

This is especially important for us in Africa, where, in many societies, especially at the grass-roots, families live together in the same households, with intra-faith and interfaith differences. They eat together, work together, celebrate the diverse religious festivals together, share in the joys of birth and the sadness of death, and jointly work towards the development of the community.

Such co-operation is far from common elsewhere; so how is it to be understood? Will it survive recent changes in the religious landscape of Africa — most obviously, the rise of violent extremism and radicalism that heavily implicate Islam.

Peace is an active state. It is a road made by walking. The peaceful co-existence of religions and their mutual understanding require continual theological reflection and the kind of theological wrestling which has been at the heart of the Programme for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa (PROCMURA).

PROCMURA was founded in 1959 as part of the process of rapid decolonisation. Its ethos was anchored in the pan-African vision of co-operation and collaboration, in a desire for an Africa that, as it threw off the shackles of colonialism, would be able to transcend differences of language, ethnicity, or religion.

Today, it continues to stretch out a hand of friendship to the Muslim community so that we can work for peaceful co-existence. PROCMURA is well established in 20 countries, and works in another 30.


ALAMYThe imam of the Grande Mosque in Dori, Burkino Faso, greets guests from the Roman Catholic Church

IN MANY ways, challenges to peaceful co-existence arise precisely because Islam and Christianity have things in common: they both believe in a universal God, seek to convert others, and live with significant internal divisions.

But key theological questions play out in a particular way within African society and culture, starting with the divine — or Supreme Being.

Africa is religious. Europeans do not always fully grasp this. There simply is no argument to be had about the existence of the divine or the spiritual realm. In that sense, there is no “secular”. Africa is a religious continent, and its people are a religious people with a deep spirituality.

The primal inheritance — that of African traditional religion(s) — has long been supplemented by Christianity and Islam, creating a triple religious heritage. This heritage has further diversified in modern times with the development of Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, and Baha’i communities. Furthermore, in recent decades, there has been a flourishing of new religious movements, and an increase of Pentecostal expressions of Christianity. The significance of these later developments has yet to be assessed fully; nevertheless, such religious diversity and difference has not prompted the rise of secular thinking.

A rainbow of religious identities thus exists within a shared understanding of the significance of the divine in contemporary Africa. Day to day, religion plays a pivotal part in shaping the actions — or inaction — of many Africans. Within this rainbow, Christianity and Islam, both of which have more than 400 million adherents, dominate the religious landscape.


GIVEN radically different conceptions of God — belief in the Triune God and the saving grace of Jesus the Christ, and a belief in the absolute oneness of God and Muhammad as his final messenger — a question might arise about how the divine is to be addressed.

In practice, the question is answered by the fact that the Supreme Being is called by different names in the different languages and ethnic groups in Africa. In some parts of the world, Christians’ referring to God as Allah is abhorrent to Muslims — indeed, churches have been burned down for this reason. It is not so in Africa. Hausa-speaking churches in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa regularly refer to Allah in their worship.

Theological relativism, however — the suggestion that all religions are the same, which is now common in the West — is firmly rejected in intra-Christian conversations on interreligious relations. Christian-Muslim relations are not aimed at forgetting differences, but, rather, at accepting and respecting differences and living with such difference in peace.

As both religions are missionary in character, there is an obvious challenge when they are in such close proximity; sometimes they co-exist in the one family. PROCMURA advocates the avoidance of both an assertive approach that all should be converted and an abdication of evangelisation.

Those who see conversion as the ultimate or only objective of interfaith encounters have to come to terms with the reality that many Muslims remain stubbornly Muslim, and, indeed, Christians, Christian. We cannot afford to jeopardise ongoing friendship and neighbourliness.

Similarly, it is artificial and inauthentic to be anti-conversion; for it is the nature of the Christian faith to reach out beyond itself, and not deny the activity and work of the Holy Spirit, as the story of Cornelius, the Roman centurion and convert of Acts 10, makes so clear.

USPG/Leah GordonAn ordinand at an ordination service, on the 150th anniversary of the Upper Shire diocese, Malawi

PROCMURA regards the duty to witness to one’s faith as closely allied to the imperative of peace. Christians’ witness is part of their identity, and, therefore, obligatory; but there is also a requirement that they work for peace. Jesus, who said “You are my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8), is also the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9.6). Peaceful co-existence is thus mandatory for Christians.

In practical terms, at least in the absence of radical forms of Islam, there is a widespread understanding in Africa that Christian mission and Muslim Da’wah (the preaching of Islam) are required, but must be carried out according to the codes of neighbourliness. In practice, this means that preachers speak about the good of their religion, but do not criticise the other’s religion.

With its concern for harmonious relationships, PROCMURA is also a strong advocate for intra-Christian and intra-Muslim engagement. It thus seeks to promote peace and tolerance within the households of the two religions as prerequisites for constructive relations.

From the pan-African perspective, interreligious peace and the peaceful co-existence of Christians and Muslims thus encourage each tradition of faith to put its own house in order. Inter- and intra-religious dialogue go hand in hand.


AFRICA provides many examples of harmonious interreligious living by followers of these two great missionary faiths, rooted in the everyday life of communities. These are grounded in a practical theology with deep spiritual roots in African culture. But they also make manifest the gospel imperative — to love our neighbour as ourselves — and echo Jesus’s radical stories of hospitality and encounter across ethnic and religious barriers. A moment’s reflection on the religious history of Europe makes clear the extent of this achievement.

This long-standing reality has been challenged in the past few years, as radical Islamic groups have established bases in Africa. Groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabab threaten to disrupt and destroy the constructive intra- and inter-religious relationships that have been built up over the years.

To live and let live in a situation of great religious diversity is an experience and a gift that Africa can offer to the world. Such good interreligious relationships have been brewed in an African pot. But we cannot be complacent, and the work of PROCMURA to give theological articulation and further expression to this blessing has never been more urgent.


The Revd Dr Johnson Mbillah served as the General Adviser for PROCMURA from 2000 to 2017.


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