Faith leaders in Africa have a responsibility to act as peacemakers rather than to fuel strife, says a Lutheran theologian from Eritrea.
"There are some situations in sub-Saharan Africa where religion-based politics has unleashed violence on a grand scale," author Yacob Tesfai said at the launch of his new book, Holy Warriors, Infidels, and Peacemakers in Africa, at the Geneva headquarters of the World Council of Churches.
Still, said Tesfai, "Generally speaking, Africans have not been fighting on the basis of religion. The question is now: 'How long will that last?'"
In the book, Tesfai examines the role of religion in conflict in various parts of the continent, including South Africa, Sudan, East Africa, and the Horn of Africa.
He notes that in the immediate post-independence period, many African leaders promoted a secular ideology, sometimes based on Marxism-Leninism.
However, religion is now, "back in the open", he argues. "The religion-dominated worldview of the African world is finding resonance with the global resurgence of religion," and those who aspire to political power seek to mobilise religion to reach their goal.
At the centre of his analysis is what Tesfai calls the "holy warrior", the "militant with a religious mission", whose understanding of faith mandates the imposition of religion onto society by force.
He quotes Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia who is now on trial in The Hague on war crimes charges, as describing his violent campaigns in West Africa as "God's war".
Others within the same religious community, however, may denounce such figures as "infidels", who have twisted and deformed the norms of the faith, notes Tesfai, a former General Secretary of the Evangelical Church of Eritrea.
Tesfai argues in favour of "open public discourse" to deal with such differing interpretations of faith, rather than allowing them to fan the flames of conflict.
Both Christianity and Islam possess traditions that can help such debate, he says.
Speaking at the book presentation last week, World Council of Churches' General Gecretary the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit described the book as having, "a relevance far beyond the African continent".
In his book, Tesfai says that faith leaders have a special responsibility because they are held in "high esteem" by their followers, and are often more respected than their political counterparts.
At times of crisis, however, they may lose their grip on the situation and, "fall into the trap of fuelling conflicts", warns the author, who has worked at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and in Nairobi, Kenya, for the Life and Peace Institute.
If religious leaders rise to the task, "they possess resources that can be used to offer responsible leadership", he states. "They can thus play the role of the much needed peacemaker."
Yacob Tesfai, Holy Warriors, Infidels, and Peacemakers in Africa is publsihed by Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-0-230-10427-3, www.palgrave.com.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]