Ecumenism in a Multi-Religious Context

By Kilaini, Method | The Ecumenical Review, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Ecumenism in a Multi-Religious Context


Kilaini, Method, The Ecumenical Review


Africa is a land of promise but also a land of missed opportunities. It is a highly fragmented land, ethnically, religiously and economically. Its great enemy is lack of unity with mutual understanding and respect. The last two hundred years were full of strife, either self-inflicted or imposed by others as a means of domination. The salvation of Africa lies in the creation of a new culture of unity, love, dialogue and mutual respect -- socially, religiously and economically. In the past religion has not always healed the wounds -- on the contrary, it was sometimes the cause of them.

As we enter the 21st century, a century of globalization where the world becomes one big village, religion has a duty to make the world a place humanly worthy of living in, first of all by preaching love and peace to its followers.

The religious map of Africa today

Africa has three main religious affiliations: the traditional or ethnic religions, Islam and Christianity. The other religions constitute less than 3 percent of the African population. Religious peace depends on the way in which these three affiliations relate internally and externally. In speaking of Africa there is the danger of considering it as one homogenous entity. In fact different countries, and sometimes parts of the same country, differ due to their geographical position, language, history, religion and economic situation.

The African Traditional Religions (ATR): Though the ATR are the oldest, they are mostly unorganized. They are the fishing ground of the other two religious groups, and continually on the decline: in 1900 they were 58 percent of the population, in 1950 26.9 percent and in 2000 only 11.5 percent. It is estimated that in 2025 they will have declined to 9.2 percent. They have, though, a strong presence in some countries such as Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Benin, Mozambique, Ivory Coast and Madagascar. Yet though they are declining in numbers, many adherents of the two major religions still syncretize their faith with traditional beliefs. A number of Christian sects attract people by mixing traditional beliefs and ceremonies with Christian faith -- so much so that one wonders whether they are Christian or members of traditional religions. Nevertheless, Christian churches have to study the elements of traditional religions if they are to be effective in evangelization.

Islam: This is the next oldest in terms of a wide presence in Africa. It has been in touch with Africa for more than a thousand years. In some countries of the Sahara it is already an indigenous religion. Over the last one hundred years, Islam has had a steady growth (though mostly in consolidating Muslim areas rather than Islamizing new areas). In 1900 Muslims constituted 32 percent of Africa's population; in 1950 they had increased to 37.3 percent and in the year 2000 they were 40.3 percent of the population. It is feared by some that by 2025, though they will have increased in absolute numbers, their percentage will drop to 39.23 percent. Almost all of North Africa and its immediate neighbours including Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Senegal, Gambia, Somalia, Niger, Mali and Mauritania, are Muslim.

Christianity: This is the newest in terms of widespread presence. With the exception of North Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia most of Africa was effectively evangelized less than two hundred years ago. Christianity has grown very fast, so that while in 1900 Christians constituted only 9.21 percent of the population, by 1950 they had grown to 24.79 percent and in year 2000 they are estimated to be 46.59 percent and the major religious belief on the continent. The projection is that by 2025 the Christians will have crossed the 50 percent mark (51.03 percent). Christianity, though divided, is the fastest growing religion in Africa. With few exceptions Southern, Central and Eastern African countries have a Christian majority. Some countries, though strongly Christian, have an almost equally strong Muslim presence, examples being Nigeria, Tanzania, Liberia and Cameroon. …

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