More than half the population in Nigeria and Rwanda fear future bloodshed along religious lines – so says new research from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But it says on the whole Christians and Muslims across Africa view one another favorably.
The survey found that across sub-Saharan Africa one-quarter of people worry that religion will lead to conflict. “There are significant numbers who say religious conflict is a big problem in their country. Highest among that, incidentally, is Nigeria which probably won’t come as a surprise to many people given the headlines that we’ve been seeing,” said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, part of the Pew Research Center based in Washington.
More than 500 people have been killed in clashes between Muslims and Christians in central Nigeria this year.
A large number of African Christians – in more than a dozen countries as many as 40 percent – said they consider Muslims to be violent. Muslims were more positive in their assessment of Christians.
But the majority of sub-Saharan Africans were positive about both religions and said it was a good thing for people from other religions to practice their faith freely. “The majority of Muslims and Christians identified the other faith with positive characteristics – they’re being tolerant, honest, respectful of women and devout. Much fewer identified people of the other faith with negative characteristics such as selfish or immoral or arrogant,” said Lugo.
Lugo says part of the reason for the good relations may be that there are often members of different religions within one family.
And, he says, religious zeal is equal across both faiths. “Both share a high degree of religious commitment, which would not be the case, let’s say, as Muslims interact with fairly secular European societies to give you a contrasting example. Muslims and Christians both have strong moral conservatives value and they share those values,” he said.
The survey is based on more than 25,000 face-to-face interviews conducted in more than 60 languages or dialects across 19 countries.
More than 90 percent of people surveyed identified themselves as Christians or Muslim. Lugo says this is why Africa was a good place to begin his research – which will go on to look at religion in other parts of the world. “This is as good a place as any if you’re going to find a meeting place or a fault line depending on your point of view between these two traditions and how they negotiate their differences. This is probably the best place in the world to do that,” he said.
According to the survey, many people who believe in Christianity or Islam also retain beliefs that are characteristic of traditional African religion. Many keep sacred objects such as animal skins and skulls in their homes and consult traditional healers when someone is sick.
Selah Hennessy | London 15 April 2010