Solid relationships ease ministry
Sophie Fragamga (center) visits with public health worker Benoit Tshimwangain outside her home in the Democratic Republic of Congo, during preparations for a distribution of mosquito nets in April 2010. United Methodists and Muslims worked together in the distribution.|
|MIKE DUBOSE/UMNS FILE PHOTO|
By Heather Hahn and Isaac Broune
For many United Methodists outside the United States, interfaith dialogue with Muslims is more than being neighborly. It can be a matter of life and death.
"It's always been the case that Christians had neighbors who weren't Christians," said the Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr., leader of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, the denomination's ecumenical agency. "Now, historical forces are driving us to understand the absolute need to come to know one another. The realities of a world that is plagued by religiously motivated violence demand all the more attention on the part of Christians."
Muslims constitute the majority or a substantial minority in many countries where The United Methodist Church is growing, particularly in Africa.
For example, some 12.1 percent of Ugandans, 38.6 percent of Ivorians, half of Nigerians and more than 90 percent of Senegalese follow Islam. By comparison, less than 1 percent of the U.S. population is Muslim.
Relations between United Methodists and local Muslims vary from country to country and even community to community. Solid interfaith relations, say church leaders, can help the denomination in its mission to make disciples, its efforts to foster peace and its fight against malaria.
Violence against both groups
Still, in some countries such as Nigeria, relationships are fragile.
Public health worker Benoit Tshimwangain (left) and Dr. Joseph Chian-Nakeen train volunteers in advance of a mosquito net distribution in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, in April 2010. United Methodists joined with Muslims and other partners to distribute some 30,000 nets in an anti-malaria campaign.|
|MIKE DUBOSE/UMNS FILE PHOTO|
Some Nigerian Muslims celebrated in the streets after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, said Dauda Marafa Goding, a United Methodist communicator there. In recent years, tensions between Muslims and Christians periodically have become violent. Since the inauguration of a Christian president in May, the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Harma has stepped up terrorist attacks, killing Christians and Muslims alike.
United Methodists continue working to build trust across religious lines. An October 2010 conflict-resolution seminar in Nigeria, sponsored by the General Board of Church and Society, drew 30 Muslims and 70 Christians.
A three-day gathering can't overcome years of hostility, but those praising the event included a Muslim cleric. It may still bear more fruit, Goding said.
"The efforts made over the years by the United Methodists in the U.S. to ensure a good interfaith relationship in the Nigeria area are well intentioned and a good practice," he said. "It has helped many Muslims to appreciate the workings of the church."
Property issues difficult
Interfaith relations also are troubled in the eastern African country of Uganda.
Shortly after 9/11, a group of Ugandan Muslims captured and forcibly circumcised a United Methodist pastor, said Grace Nakajje, communicator in the East African Annual Conference. Although the pastor survived and continues to serve, the incident created a lasting enmity between some United Methodists and local Muslims, Nakajje said.
While Muslims are the minority in Uganda, they control much of the nation's business. Church leaders have had to wrangle with Muslim interests to obtain land for housing. "At the national level, government officials and the interreligious council normally sit around a table and discuss issues equally," Nakajje said. "But there is still lack of equality and freedom at the grassroots."
The tension has not stopped Ugandan United Methodism from growing, she added. "There is no open religious conflict between the Muslims and Christians yet."
In Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), relations between Muslims and United Methodists are far more harmonious. Believers of both faiths join for workshops and other efforts, said the Rev. Isaac Bodjé, the Côte d'Ivoire Central Conference secretary. He also is vice-chairperson of the Programme for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa.
United Methodist leaders also have a good relationship with Côte d'Ivoire's new president, Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim.
Bodjé sees interfaith understanding as part of Christ's calling. "When he was on Earth, the Lord said he left us his peace," he said. "And this peace, we should not only cultivate it, but also nurture it. So, we are continuing an action of the Lord."
Fighting disease together
United Methodists and Muslims in some parts of Africa are jointly fighting disease and poverty. The Rev. Larry Hollon, general secretary of United Methodist Communications, saw that when he visited the Democratic Republic of Congo last year as part of the denomination's Imagine No Malaria campaign.
Hollon recalls the regional imam (Muslim cleric) meeting with the Imagine No Malaria team of the Central Congo Conference and expressing his fervent desire to join in actions to prevent the disease.
"We have in the past prayed together as Muslims, Christians and Jews," the imam said. "Malaria is a common enemy. The form of our prayer now is not words but action. Malaria as a disease threatens to kill children, regardless of their religious faith."
"When folks come together for the purpose of looking at how they can improve life, a lot of the divisions that cause us to feel separate from each other are healed," said Hollon. "If we help each other, we have a greater chance to improve the quality of life and be a more faithful people."
Strong interfaith relationships actually have helped with Christian evangelism.
The United Methodist Church first came to Senegal, a West African country where 94 percent of the population is Muslim, at the invitation of an influential Muslim leader who had worked with church members in relief efforts.
By 2009, the General Board of Global Ministries' "mission" in Senegal had grown to 17 congregations and 950 members. It also has established prison ministries and a women's ministry as well as microcredit and other programs to alleviate poverty.
Be a friend...
Christian-Muslim relations in Senegal generally are good, but tensions do sometimes occur.
The Rev. Patrick L. Friday, a Board of Global Ministries staff member, tells how an enterprising Senegalese pastor transformed a rivalry into a partnership.
When the church bought some land in eastern Senegal, local Muslims built a mosque to tower over the church property and assert their religion's dominance, Friday said.
The pastor — the Rev. Etienne Dione — responded with kindness. After he offered the mosque's leader land to grow vegetables for his family, the Muslim softened his views toward the Christians. The two clergymen started growing produce together. Part of their sales has gone toward building the new church.
Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Isaac Broune is the communicator for the Côte d'Ivoire Annual Conference. .
A mission grows in Senegal
Our Muslim Neighbors