Fierce heaven: Low risk of Islam vs. Christianity war in Africa, but religious intolerance rising sharply

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PEW Research Center estimates that as a whole Christian and Muslim on the continent number 400 million to 500 million each.

It is getting harder for religious groups in Africa to get along, recent data and growing extremist violence suggests.

For a century now, Christians and Muslims in Africa have lived side by side peacefully.  However, growing attacks on churches and mosques around the continent have led to fears that that peace could be wrecked with disastrous consequences.

According to a 2012 PEW Research Centre study, religious hostilities in Africa and the world at large is on the rise. Of the 198 countries it surveyed, 33% had experienced a sharp rise in religious hostilities, from 20% in 2007 to 29% in 2011. 

The regions with the highest cases were northern Africa and Middle East.

Against this backdrop, the main source of violent confrontation is the likelihood of a backlash against attacks on Christian targets by extremist Islamist groups like Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Somalia’s Al Shabaab, and increasingly shrill evangelical groups in Africa who are funded by far right churches, especially from the West.

The Central African Republic (CAR), analysts say, gave us an early taste of the nightmare that could visit Africa if religious tensions continue to rise.

In March 2013 the Seleka rebels seized power and its leader Michel Djotodia was installed as the first Muslim ruler of CAR, which has a majority Christian population.

The mostly Muslim rebels got locked in heavy fighting with mainly Christian militia anti-balaka militia from that point. Retaliatory attacks on mosques and churches became the order of the day. In December alone, over 400 people were killed when Christian militias, loyal to the CAR president who was ousted by Seleka, Francois Bozize, launched attacks from the north, sparking retaliatory attacks from mainly Muslim armed fighters loyal to the new leadership. 

Advantage swung back
In January 2014 Djotodia was forced to resign. The Christian-on-Muslim violence went up sharply, but because the advantage had swung back in favour of the Christians, anti-balaka orchestrated a pogrom of Muslims. 

In April Christian youths looted a mosque in Bangui, a day after Seleka militias attacked the Church of Fatima church in Bangui with guns and grenades, killing several people. 

The conflict has displaced about 25% of CAR’s population, and uprooted or killed nearly all of the country’s Muslims – estimates say 15,000 Muslims are now trapped in small pockets around the country, under international protection.

Even during South Sudan’s war of independence, in which the conflict was presented as a fight between the Muslim north and Christian “and animist” south, it was never nakedly as religious as it turned out in CAR.

The recent case of Sudanese Christian woman Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, that has riveted the world for the past few weeks, following a death sentence imposed on May 15 by a Sudanese court for apostasy, did not help.

An appeal court freed her on from the women’s prison where she had been detained with her children, but she immediately went into hiding because of death threats by Islamic extremists, who had lobbied the Khartoum government against the annulment of her sentence. She was arrested at the airport days later as she left the country. She was again released, and is now holed up in the US embassy in Khartoum.

A Catholic, Ishag’s crime was converting, which is outlawed under Islamic sharia law in force in the country since 1983, even if she was raised under her mother’s Orthodox Christian faith since she five, when her Muslim father abandoned the family. 

In Kenya, on at least two different occasions, gunmen have walked into Kenyan churches and shot at them indiscriminately, and thrown grenades in at least three other instances. The attacks are usually blamed on Islamic militants seeking to foment inter-religious tensions. 

Stormed a mosque
The country has also seen several attacks against mosques. In September 2012, at least three people were killed and eight wounded when a grenade was thrown in a crowd of worshippers as they left a mosque in the majority Somali district of Eastleigh. More violence against Muslims occurred in February this year when police officers stormed a mosque in, what they say, was an attempt to break up a ring of individuals suspected of funding and recruiting jihadists. At least two people were killed after police opened fire on Muslim youths who came out to protest the raid.

A recent attack in Tanzania also targeted a mosque, when in June, at least one person was killed and several others were wounded in a bomb attack near a mosque on Tanzania’s Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar. 

In Egypt, in the post-Arab Spring era that has seen the mushrooming of extremist groups, attacks on Coptics have increased. From 2000-2009, there were five known attacks on Copts, a figure that doubled after the Arab spring. From 2010 to 2013 there were ten high-profile attacks against Copts. These led to the deaths of at least 90 individuals with over a hundred also injured. 

There were some greenshoots though: Muslims were reported as having joined marches organised by Coptics in 2011 to protest their persecution.

In certain countries, anti-Christian sentiments are getting formalised. In 2012 Tunisia, following the Arab Spring Salafists formed the organisation, now called the “Centrist Association for Awareness and Reform” which was aimed to see that Islamic virtues were upheld in public life. 

In southern Africa, there was also international uproar when Angola appeared to ban Islam in 2013. Though Angola denies the reports, Muslims in the country claimed that the state had dismantled mosques in a controversial effort to allegedly stem the spread of Muslim extremism.

Not blow over
Analysts who say the divide will not blow over, point to an unusual source of comfort – the fact that Muslims are also regularly targeted by Boko Haram extremists in north-eastern Nigeria, where the group seeks to establish an Islamic state.

But despite the optimistic outlooks, evidence shows troubling  signs that religious hostilities in Africa have in recent years are taking a long-term turn for the worst.

 In April 2010 the PEW Research Center conducted a survey on the state of religion on the continent, looking at changes in religion in sub-Saharan Africa from 1900. 

According to their findings, as the number of people subscribing to traditional African religions fell from 76% in 1900 to 13% in 2010, the number of Christians rose from 9% in 1900 to 57% in 2010. That of Muslims also rose from 14% to 29% in 2010. 

The number of Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa according to PEW was 234 million in 2010, and that of Christians was 470 million. 

However, the study made it clear that when looking at Africa broadly (including North Africa), there was little difference between the numbers of Muslims and that of Christians in the continent. 

They estimated that Africa as a whole had Christian and Muslim followers to the tune of between 400 million to 500 million each. These numbers have obviously gone up since, but as they rise, so have the tensions between these groups.

Situation deteriorated
Nigeria, which in 2010, was among the leading ten countries in the world in terms of Muslim numbers at 75,728,000 and was projected to possess 116, 832,000 by 2030, has been under intense and consistent attack by Boko Haram. 

People in the majority Christian South and the mainly Muslim North have existed with their conflicts for a long time but the situation has recently deteriorated with anti-Western rhetoric from Boko Haram (who view Christianity as little more than a western enterprise), the kidnapping of school children and methods like calling out people to prayer then shooting them.

Needless to emphasise, religion on its own is not responsible for the growing hostilities; another dimension is politics and government meddling. It remains easy to mobilise and foment conflict along religious lines. 

In 2012, PEW Research Center looked at countries in the world where official meddling and restrictions along religious issues is high and in their final list, Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Somalia, Eritrea, and Morocco ranked favourably with Iran, Syria and China. 

The events in Kenya, Sudan, CAR, Nigeria, Somalia or Morocco may be political acts or acts of terrorism aimed at destabilising regions or regimes of the day using religion – for now. The danger will come when religion is the only issue they are about.

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