The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Africa on boil as Christianity, Islam compete for souls

AP/ Lagos (Nigeria)
Daily Pioneer
Monday, April 18, 2005

Winding its way across Africa is an invisible faultline between a mainly Muslim north and a majority Christian south. Across this front, somewhere in the scrubland south of the Sahara desert, tensions flare between increasingly strident Christian movements aggressively working to convert people of other faiths and an Islamic world wary of encroaching western influences. When the two worlds collide - a Muslim takes offense at a woman showing too much skin or a shop selling alcohol, a Christian takes umbrage when a thief's hand is chopped off - entire villages can riot.

Africa's billion people offer the largest field of potential converts anywhere in the world, and the competition for souls is fiercest between the continent's two biggest religions - Catholicism and Islam. "The Vatican recognises that in sub-Saharan Africa you have the area where Muslims and Christians are most likely to be confronting each other," says John Voll, director of the Centre for Muslim-Christian understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "It is a high priority to make sure that those Catholic interactions with Muslims don't necessarily lead to open conflict." But the ancient battle has exploded across an invisible frontier that separates not just religions but also cultures and major ethnic groups.

The 21-year civil war that recently ended in Sudan erupted when the Arab government imposed strict Islamic law opposed by blacks in the south, where more than 4 million Catholics make up 13 per cent of the population. That war is blamed for more than 2 million deaths.

In 2002, more than 200 people died in Christian-Muslim riots triggered by opposition to holding the Miss World competition in Nigeria. This month, Nigerian newspapers have been full of reports that Islamic leaders are preparing a violent jihad, which they deny.

Islamic leaders, meanwhile, complain Muslims are being marginalised under a southern Christian president who ended 20 years of northern rule.

Pope John Paul II chose Nigeria's most powerful cleric, Cardinal Francis Arinze, to lead the church's rapprochement with other religions at a time when fundamentalist Islamic and Protestant sects replaced communism as the biggest challenge to Catholic proselytising.

Extreme forms of Christianity and Islam are gaining strength in Africa, raising the risk of more confrontation, especially as the two sides compete for converts from each other's camps as the ranks of followers of traditional animist religions shrink.

Arinze, whom some consider a top contender for Pope, took the route of stressing islam and Catholicism's common fight against sexual permissiveness and contraception. "Authentic dialogue demands that Muslims and Christians accept one another with all their similarities and differences," he once said.

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