“Everyone is allowed and encouraged to practice their religion of choice, share the things they have in common, and help each other despite their difference of faith”, says Mohamad Camara, a 23-year old who describes the essence of his community called Magazine Wharf. This community lies next to Susan’s Bay, one of the biggest slum quarters in Freetown, Sierra Leone‘s capital. “It follows the city’s coastal line and when seen far from the sea, it is like the houses are clustering together for protection.”
Camara believes the one thing that makes his community unique is religious tolerance. “While Islam is practiced by over half the community, the city harbors both mosques and churches and there is even one building being constructed as a multi-faith center”, says the young man.
Of its 6 million inhabitants, about 70% are Muslim, according to Sierra Leone’s last census. About 25% are estimated to be Christian and 5% practice indigenous, traditional beliefs. Inter-religious and inter-tribal marriages have laid a strong foundation for religious coexistence in the country and they play a great part in its moderate dynamic. It is very common to see a Christian woman married to a Muslim husband or a Mende man married to a Temne woman, and they live peacefully. These bonds have brought not only individuals, but entire communities, towns and cities together – to the extent that Sierra Leoneans see no barrier in religion, language or culture.
Alhaji Alie Bangura, the chief Imam of Masjid Istihad (Congo Cross Mosque), has two wives, one daughter and six sons. He says “this is where religious and tribal competition comes”. He clarifies: “Mostly, in these marriages, the couples try to convert each other without violence. They teach each other the values of their religion or tribe and give reasons as well. In most cases, conversions do take place. If not, the competition is passed to the children.”
Next, love for the children takes center stage. It is interesting to see some children going to a Mosque with their father and the others to a Church with the mother, and yet they still live as a family. As they grow up under such tolerant roofs, they see no reason to fight each other.
Some argue the introduction of education by western missionaries was a contributing factor to successful coexistence in the country. Their schools were run on Christian principles, but their classrooms were open to non-Christians alike. In fact, non-Christians were the majority in most of these schools and even though they had to learn the Christian religion while at school, at home they were Muslims.
Now there are non-religious schools, where they have places of worship for both religions within the school premises. The University of Sierra Leone, comprising the Fourah Bay College, College of Medicine & Allied Health Science and the Institute of Public Administration & Management, allows religious groups on campus, promoting different faiths peacefully. There has never been any major incidence of religious violence.
Imam Bangura attributes conflict around the world to five main problems: “Misleading teachings, negative human behavior, tribal fights, ethnic conflicts and political interference, which, in Islam, are not in line with the teachings of the Prophet. Islam means peace and forbids violence”, he says.
The role of religious leaders stands out, as they are powerful peace promoters in their community being highly respected and listened to by all in society. Imam Bangura says leaders preach and teach according to current events and the particular struggles at the time.
Despite Sierra Leone’s exemplary work towards religious integration, there are still episodes of violence between the two main religions, the Imam recalls. This past Ramadan there were tensions between a group of Muslims and Christians, who happened to meet at the same place for prayers. A solution came fast, though: the Muslims should pray first, as their prayers take less time then the Christians’, so both faiths could pray at the same place. As Imam Bangura puts it: “We are all related. We are a family. Though we profess different religions and maintain different cultural practices, one fact remains: we serve one God.”
By nature people have different beliefs and so should feel free to practice the tenets of their faith without threat of discrimination, oppression or intolerance. We simply need to accept each other’s religion and allow each other the freedom to follow their own traditions. The coexistence of religion is a fundamental challenge in countries all over the world. We should bear in mind the positive aspects of coexistence: the mutual, fruitful enrichment of society that continues to take place across religious and ethnic dividing lines. Those stories rarely reach the headlines.
Text: Seray Bangura (supported by On Our Radar)