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Interreligious dialogue can quell conflicts in Africa

With part of his life in each tradition, Father Patrick Baraza, a Kenyan priest serving in the Diocese of Spokane, sees African traditional religions strengthening community, Christianity bringing hope and Islam being practical.

Father Patrick Baraza

Father Patrick Baraza

He believes each faith has positive contributions to make in the African context, but he sees that often the imported faiths—Christianity and Islam—have not respected African traditional religions.  They have brought Arabization, Americanization and Europeanization that deny respect to African traditional religions.

Because those faiths also have brought to Africa their internal divisions and their hostilities to each other, Father Patrick considers inter-religious dialogue crucial for resolving conflicts in Africa. 

He came to Spokane in 2005 to teach in Gonzaga University’s Religious Studies Department and help offer Masses at Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral.

Three faiths integral to heritage

For him, inter-religious dialogue in Africa must include Christianity, Islam and traditional religions—each integral to his heritage and who he is. 

His village, Bungoma, practiced traditional African worship of one God through honoring the spirits of their ancestors. 

His grandfather converted to Islam when he fought with the British in World War I in Burma.  Although the community hated him for not renouncing Islam, Father Patrick loved him, and often went with him to the mosque because he was curious to learn more about Islam.

Father Patrick

Father Patrick serves in Diocese of Spokane.

Because he lived near Kitare 300 miles West of Nairobi, Father Patrick attended Catholic schools and became Catholic.

“If I had lived in Southern Kenya, I would be Seventh Day Adventist, or in Central Kenya, I would be Presbyterian, Methodist or Anglican,” he said.

Ordained in 1982, he served a parish, taught philosophy at his diocese in Kenya and served among the Pokot, nomadic people who hold traditional beliefs, before he came to the United States in 1993 to do master’s and doctoral studies in Islam at the University of California-Berkeley, the Graduate Theological Union and the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.

After completing the degree in 2002, Father Patrick returned to work another three years with the Pokot in Kenya.  In 2005, he came to Spokane to teach Catholicism in the context of African culture and to teach Islam at Gonzaga University.  While here, he helps support his diocese and family.

Most of his family became Christian, he said, not because he “converted” them, but because of what they saw in him. 

Each faith has positive influence

He had preached at a Mass before an interview with The Fig Tree.  His sermon was about Nathanael asking Philip if anything good could come out of Nazareth.  Philip said, “Come and see how he prays, come and see how he loves.” (John 1:45-51)

“To African traditional religions, which worship one God and have no concept of future, Christianity brings a sense of future and hope, hope for life today,” he said.  “Africans who have nothing to eat go to a Christian crusade where they dance and praise.  They come home fed with hope from worshipping God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength.

“I said Mass for 35 minutes this noon.  That’s unheard of in Africa!   I would have been reported to my bishop for underfeeding the people,” he said.

“Islam’s gift is that it is practical.  The five pillars are five things to do.  In contrast, my faith is dogmatic and theological,” he said.

“African traditional religions hold their communities and their culture together as people honor the dead,” he said.  “Christianity and anthropologists misunderstood that as worship.”

Each faith can be challenged

Father Patrick said that each of the religions has elements that should be discouraged, aspects that need to be challenged.  Each tends to absorb the cultural influences under which they grew, but each tends not to distinguish the culture from the faith.

“Each religion has positive teachings that should influence people to live peacefully.  Each also has negative aspects which can result in violence,” he said.

Father Patrick expanded on that concept at a spring conference offered by the U.S. Institute for Peace, Pax Christi and Gonzaga University.

He also addresses effects of Christianity and Islam as imported religions in his recently published book, Rival Claims for the Soul of Africa, written in 1995, published and available on Sept. 1.

 “Neither Christianity nor Islam is a super religion.  Both need to learn to respect each other and traditional religions,” he said.  “There is no dialogue if a religion considers itself superior.  We only achieve dialogue in the context of equality.”

In Kenya, about 30 percent of the people are Catholic, 38 percent Protestants and 15 percent Muslim.  Many also continue some traditional practices.

Each transferred conflicts

Father Patrick said that both Islam and Christianity have experienced some people who engaged in divisive conflicts over leadership, power, and culture.  Both enslaved Africans.

Conflicts in Islam were transferred to Africa, and the Arabization of North Africa accompanied the spread of Islam.

Christianity came in the 19th century with the colonial scramble for Africa, dividing Africa among European imperial powers who arrived with agents of religion. 

Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of the Republic of Kenya, said “there was no difference between the missionaries and the colonizers.”

“Originally, we had the land.  Missionaries arrived with the Bible and asked us to close our eyes and pray.  When we opened our eyes, we had the Bible and they had the land,” Father Patrick said, clarifying that “missionaries did wonderful things, but came with the colonizers, who used three methods:  God (religion), glory (power) and gold (economic), to force people to move.”

Christianity also brought its divisions to Africa, with territory granted to different European nations and their churches.

“My ancestors lived on both sides of the river that now divides Uganda and Kenya.  They have at times been denied permission to see relatives across the river,” he said.  “Boundaries affected people.  Religions and governments worked together setting those boundaries.”

Africans welcomed both

Father Patrick said African traditional religion welcomed both Islam and Christianity because of the African philosophy of community:  “I am because we are.”

That philosophy, he believes, can today prepare the ground for dialogue and for solidarity that can build peace.

“In African traditional religion, the future is a dream and yesterday is a memory.  We live now when we can make time for dialogue,” Father Patrick said.

“Dialogue is not a monologue about one being superior and another being inferior,” he said.

Starting points for dialogue include mutual respect and understanding, without accepting teachings of the other religion.

 Dialogue is possible

He believes dialogue among Christians, Muslims and traditional religions is possible.

In Africa, many families are mixed—the father Muslim, the mother Christian and the children something else.  That reality is conducive for dialogue, because families share common values despite the diverse beliefs.

He points out that dialogue requires understanding meanings and attitudes, taking risks, and engaging in give-and-take.  For example, he has spoken and read the Koran in Tanzanian mosques to convey respect.

“We need to be humble for change to take place,” he said.

The Golden Rule is common among religions, calling individuals to live in harmony, to do to others what they want done to them.

He also called for people to come together and learn the sources for disagreements, such as conflicts in the Nile Valley between the Dinga, Nuer and Nubians related to Islam, Christianity and traditional religions.

Sources of disagreement

Father Patrick listed some of the sources of disagreement and hindrances to dialogue:

• There is competition between Christians and Muslims for followers and land.

• Racial differences cause conflicts between Muslims, such as in Darfur, as well as between religions, such as the conflict between North and South Sudan.

• Conflicts result in refugees, hungry children and widowed mothers struggling to survive.

• Theological hindrances to dialogue include mutual negative attitudes,  bitter political exchanges and distortions, misunderstandings and rejections of other faiths’ teachings and practices.

Father Patrick quoted a Swahili proverb that says, “where elephants fight, the grass is hurt” to make the point that as Islam and Christianity struggle in Africa for faith and ideologies, African culture and life are harmed, particularly in villages and slums.

“We need to consider who suffers when the giants fight in Africa,” he said.  “Christ’s birth in a given place and culture reminds us of the need to respect each locality and culture.”

Finding bonding points

So he promotes looking for bonding points among the faiths.

• He suggests dialogue at the grassroots, rather than waiting for dialogue among the leaders.

• In Africa, community forums occur in market places, enhancing community solidarity.  People talk about common concerns and ask leaders to make positive, sustainable change, he said.

• He encourages dialogue on Christian and Muslim holy days, when people can share their faith understandings and bridge cultural differences.

 • Weddings and funerals are times Muslims, Christians and African traditional religion adherents come together as communities.

Father Patrick said that, while extremists in religions and politics use violence, people of faith need to use nonviolence to resolve social problems.

Inter-religious dialogue can make it possible for people to hear the voices of the voiceless and realize that the voice of those who suffer is God’s voice. 

In that common voice of God, Father Patrick believes there is common ground.

For information on this article, call 280-9737.