The reality of religious conflict in Africa

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, November 29, 2015

The headlines about interactions between Muslims and Christians in sub-Saharan Africa might lead Americans to believe that the two groups never get along.

That’s not precisely the case, according to Catholic and Muslim speakers who shared their perspective in a panel discussion on theological resources for peace in the region on DePaul University’s Lincoln Park Campus Nov. 12.

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, Nigeria, reminded the audience that sub-Saharan Africa is a big, diverse place, with 47 countries and nearly 1,000 languages spoken. Christianity and Islam are the two biggest religious groups, but each of them are divided into many sub-groups, and not every adherent of each religion has a good understanding of the tenets of their faith.

Indeed, Archbishop Kaigama said, there is no reason that the two religions cannot coexist.

“Are these two religions incompatible? They shouldn’t be,” he said, noting that believers in both faiths are to greet people with a word of peace. “It’s all about peace, never war. Dialogue between these two groups is possible. Islam and Christianity have come to stay in the subcontinent, with millions of adherents. It is very hard for one to eliminate the other.”

Babacar Mbengue, who teaches Islamic studies and history at De- Paul University, said his early life in Senegal is a demonstration of Muslim-Christian dialogue. Raised in a Muslim family and educated in Catholic institutions, he had many Catholic relatives and friends, he said, and members of both religious groups looked forward to one another’s religious holidays, knowing they would be welcomed to join in celebratory meals and other festive events.

Senegal is about 90 percent Muslim and 10 percent Roman Catholic, he said.

“Overall, there is not just an atmosphere of mere tolerance. There is an effort to promote amity and an atmosphere of peace,” he said. “The conflicts are the tree that hides the forest of inter-religious dialogue and cooperation.”

Archbishop Kaigama said he has seen similar levels of interreligious cooperation and relationships in the southern part of Nigeria, but finds more conflict with extremist groups who claim to be Muslim in the northern part of the country.

Nigeria has suffered much conflict, especially from the activities of the Boko Haram group, which identifies itself as Islamic.

Archbishop Kaigama is president of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Nigeria and vice president of the Regional Episcopal Conferences of West Africa and is a founding member of Nigeria’s InterFaith Activity and Partnership for Peace, which provides a platform for dialogue between people of different faiths. Among his writings is a compilation of some of his peace efforts titled “Peace, Not War: A Decade of Interventions in the Plateau State Crises.”

Religious leaders from both communities must use care not to encourage violence, even or especially in response to violence, the archbishop said.

“When our church in Jos was bombed, I went to the scene. There were so many people. They were so angry. They wanted me to declare war. I went to kneel before the remnants of the Blessed Sacrament. I knelt there for five minutes, and I went to talk to the people and told them I cannot declare war, because Jesus tells me I cannot return evil for evil. We have to overcome evil with good.”

Many of the conflicts are not really about religion, both men said. Rather, they are tribal, ethnic or cultural conflicts or issues caused by poverty and the scarcity of resources. Religion is used as an excuse.

“We need to look at conflicts and see what part of it is actually religious. People often are using religion as a screen for deeper problems,” Mbengue said.

To that end, interreligious conflicts tend to decrease with increasing economic and political development, Archbishop Kaigama said.

“A hungry man is an angry man. A hungry boy is easily manipulated by the politicians and the religious extremists,” he said.

Dominican Father Aniedi Okure executive director of the Africa Faith & Justice Network, based in Washington, D.C., moderated the discussion. It was the first of a three-part series titled “Muslim- Catholic Dialogue: Prospects, Possibilities and Challenges,” which is organized by DePaul’s Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology. Other dialogues are scheduled for Feb. 19, with a focus on the Middle East, and for May 5, with a focus on the Philippines.

Cosponsors of the series include the Downtown Islamic Center and the following units from DePaul University: Center for Religion, Culture and Community; Islamic World Studies Program; Office of Religious Diversity; and Department of Catholic Studies.


  • muslim-christian relations
  • depaul university
  • ignatius kaigama
  • babacar mbengue
  • aniedi okure

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