Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mixture In Africa's Religions

*The article below was recently presented on Religion News Blog:

US Study Sheds Light on Africa's Unique Religious Mix

WASHINGTON (AFP) - In the space of a century, Africa has morphed from a continent dominated by traditional beliefs to one where the majority of people are Christian or Muslim, a US study showed Thursday.

The vast majority of people in sub-Saharan Africa are deeply committed to the world's two largest religions, making the region one of the most religious places in the world, according to the study by the Pew Research Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Traditional African beliefs have been incorporated into Africans' Christian or Muslim belief sets, according to the study, for which Pew researchers surveyed 25,000 people in 19 sub-Saharan African countries between December 2008 and April 2009.

"It doesn't seem to be an either-or for many people. They can describe themselves primarily as Muslim or Christian and continue to practice many of the traditions that are characteristic of African traditional religion," Luis Lugo, executive director of the Pew Forum, told AFP.

In around half the countries involved in the study, everyone interviewed said they were Christian or Muslim. In most of the other countries, the vast majority -- nine out of 10 interviewees -- said the same.

And yet Africans still practice sacrifices, believe in the protective powers of charms and amulets, believe in the 'evil eye', that there are people who can cast curses on others, and consult traditional religious healers.

The number of Muslims living between the Sahara desert and South Africa's Cape of Good Hope has increased more than 20-fold since 1900, from around 11 million to some 234 million this year, but the number of Christians in Africa has grown even faster.

Around seven million Africans said they were Christian in 1900 compared with 470 million today.

Northern Africa, which was not included in the study, is predominantly Muslim, while countries in southern Africa are mainly Christian, with a "great meeting place in the middle" of the continent, stretching from Somalia in the east to Senegal in the west.

"To some outside observers, this is a volatile religious fault line - the site, for example, of Al-Qaeda's first major terrorist strike, the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and more recently of ethnic and sectarian bloodshed in Nigeria," the study said.

Nigeria, which is Africa's most populous nation, has the largest number of Christians and the largest number of Muslims of any place in sub-Saharan Africa, and six out of 10 Nigerians said religious conflict was "a very big problem in their country," Lugo said.

"Sometimes conflict is directly related to religion, like the imposition of sharia law in the north of Nigeria, but oftentimes there are other factors -- political, economic, tribal -- and religion gets implicated," said Lugo.

He quoted acting president of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan, who said at a conference in Washington this week: "Conflicts in Africa are not sparked by religion, but religion is the wind that can spread the wildfire."

Overall, however, Africa's Christians and Muslims are highly tolerant of each other. But Christians are more likely to identify Muslims with violence than the other way around.

"In Chad, for instance, 70 percent of Christians view Muslims as violent, while only 16 percent of Muslims saw Christians as violent," said Lugo.

The central African country, which has a roughly even mix of Christians and Muslims, shares a border with Sudan's Darfur region, where some 300,000 people have died in seven-year war between militias allied to the Arab government in Khartoum and ethnic minority rebels in Darfur.