Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1273, (3 - 9 December 2015)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1273, (3 - 9 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Pope Francis’ African agenda

Open arms greeted the arrival of Pope Francis in Africa, writes Gamal Nkrumah

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world
Al-Ahram Weekly

“Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters,” Pope Francis told a congregation of Muslims in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.

At the Grand Mosque and Koudoukou Mosque in the notoriously dangerous PK5 neighbourhood, the Roman Catholic pontiff, surrounded by a group of Vatican police, talked with Bangui’s Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga and Imam Oumar Kobine Layama. In attendance was Archbishop Franco Coppola, the Papal Nuncio, or pope’s ambassador to the Central African Republic.

Pope Francis has an engaging history of defending the poor. He is the first Jesuit pope. Jesuits are sometimes referred to colloquially as “God’s Soldiers.” The Jesuits are Amigos en El Senor, or “Friends in the Lord”, because they felt “they were placed together by Christ.”

The pope’s African tour expresses an interesting conundrum. It is clear that he had a certain agenda, for the nations he chose to visit are not necessarily the ones with the largest populations of African Roman Catholics.

“We cannot ignore what Seleka has done and provoked today’s anti-Muslim reactions,” said the imam of Bangui. The current crisis in the Central African Republic is “political and military, not religious,” he said.

Seleka is a coalition of opposition militias, mostly composed of Muslims, who seized power in Central Africa in March 2013 and then were ousted by Christian fundamentalist anti-Balaka militias.

“No religious leader in the country has launched an appeal regarding the religious clash: the proof is that we live together,” the imam said. “If we want peace, we must be impartial and condemn all forms of violence.”

Pope Francis chose to visit Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of Somali and South Sudanese refugees live. The internally displaced persons in the Central African Republic were another reason he visited the Central African Republic.

“God is peace, salam,” the pope told a huge crowd of Muslims in the Koudoukou Mosque. He depicted a picture of Muslims and Christians living happily together in the violence-torn nation.

“The recent events and acts of violence that have shaken your country were not grounded in properly religious motives,” the pope said. “Together, we must say no to hatred, to revenge and to violence, particularly that violence that is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself.”

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported on the trials and tribulations of Muslims in the Central African Republic. “Trouble mongers could delay the completion of a particular project of common interest, or compromise for a time a particular activity, but never, Inshallah [God willing], can they destroy the bonds of brotherhood that unite our communities so solidly,” Tidiani Moussa Naibi, the imam of the Koudoukou Mosque concurred with the Roman Catholic pontiff.

Muslims are trapped in three enclaves in the western Central African Republic: Berberati, Carnot and Yaloka. More than half of the country’s population is Christian and about 15 per cent is Muslim.

Africa’s Catholic population is growing faster than any other in the world. “The Catholic population there in Africa has grown by 238 per cent since 1980 and is approaching 200 million,” said Bill O’Keefe, a vice president at the Catholic Relief Services, a church-affiliated US humanitarian group that does work in Africa. “If the current trends continue, 24 per cent of Africans will be Catholic by 2040.”

Contemporary Africa is becoming polarised along religious lines. Christians, in some regions, are becoming more suspicious of Muslims, especially Muslims who adhere to the strict Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam that has emanated from Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, the pope came to Africa with a mission of peace and reconciliation. Yet, as the case in the Central African Republic demonstrates, Muslims and Christians are not exactly amicable, regardless of what religious leaders proclaim.

The mission of Pope Francis has its limitations; he could have visited Ivory Coast, a country where Christians are pitted in a struggle for power against Muslims, and Muslims have the upper hand, unlike the Central African Republic where Christians reign supreme.

Pope Francis personally opened the Holy Door at Bangui’s Cathedral Sunday, nine days before the official opening of the Year of Mercy. But you would need a heart of stone for the Roman Catholic pontiff’s amiable gestures to Central African Muslims, and enthusiasm for peace in the country, to not rub off on you.

So why did the Pope not visit Africa’s most populous Christian nation? The clash between Christianity and Islam helps solve this mystery. Christianity is the majority religion in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, followed by about 95 per cent of the population. And he did not visit South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, having gained independence in 2011, and with a large concentration of Roman Catholics.

Such interpretations of the pope’s African tour agenda are helped along by the eloquent eulogies and paeans of Pope Francis. Take the case of Congo, the country with the largest number of Roman Catholics in Africa. There are about 40 million Roman Catholics in the country. They sure did want to see their pontiff. Another predominantly Roman Catholic country on Africa is Angola. But the Pope decided not to visit Angola. Why?

Angola was the first country in Africa and the world to ban Islam, despite its large minority population of 500,000 Muslims, because Islam allegedly runs counter to traditional Angolan cultural traditions and customs. There are about 80 mosques in the country, but the Angolan authorities threatened to demolish them. Angolan authorities rescinded in the end.

Pope Francis arrived in Africa at a most unpropitious, even inauspicious, moment, when there is growing tension between Muslims and Christians in Africa south of the Sahara. And it is clear that he did not visit countries with a Roman Catholic majority. He intentionally visited African nations where Christians and Muslims have conflict.

The other African nation that the pope visited encapsulates a curious mix of homophobia and benevolent dictatorship. It has also been subject to militant Islamist terrorist attacks. The July 2010 attack in the Ugandan capital Kampala by the Somali-based Al-Shabab militant Islamist terrorists was widely viewed as revenge against the Ugandan government’s military intervention in Somalia.

Uganda has also suffered from attacks by Christian fundamentalist terrorist militias, most notably the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). On Christmas Day of 2008, the LRA massacred at least 143 people. Hundreds of thousands of Ugandans have been internally displaced because of LRA terrorism.

“The world is witnessing an unprecedented migration of peoples,” the pope tweeted. “I want to thank Uganda for its generosity in welcoming refugees.”

Ugandan rights groups watched in horror as a version of the anti-gay bill was passed in parliament in late 2013. Homosexuality would reinforce the subjugation of Africans, Museveni declared.

The legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill coined the term, “The Pearl of Africa” as a designation for Uganda. Historians and many members of the African “experts” community already know that Museveni often takes high-stakes gambles in his political life.

Museveni’s Uganda is a staunch Western ally in the fight against militant Islamist terrorism in East Africa. Looking ahead to the 2016 elections, the majority of his electorate is overwhelmingly anti-gay. Christians in Uganda — and Muslims —abhor gay rights. On a Sunday at Rubaga Cathedral, perched on one of Kampala’s famous hills, the faithful pack the pews for the afternoon Buganda service.

Pope Francis’s African tour reveals his agenda for Christianity in Africa and the world. He deliberately chose to visit countries where there is a Muslim-Christian divide.

 

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