Tripoli inter-faith meeting seeks improved Christian-Muslim relations

By Ecumenical News International
September 2, 2007

African religious leaders meeting in the Libyan capital Tripoli have praised a more than 25-year-long dialogue between Libya and the Vatican as a positive contribution to good relations between Christianity and Islam - writes Fredrick Nzwili.

"Given the global situation between Christians and Muslims which is understood to be very tense because of what happened on 11 September [2001], I think this is a very good contribution," the Rev Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation told Ecumenical News International.

Noko is convenor of Inter-Faith Action for Peace in Africa, which is meeting in Tripoli from 27 to 30 August. Libya is predominantly Muslim but there is also a small Roman Catholic presence in the former Italian colony.

Unknown to many people, according to Sheikh Saleh Habimana, the Mufti of Rwanda, and the chairperson of the Muslim Councils for East, Central and Southern Africa, representatives of the Catholic Church and Tripoli have been holding discussions during over the past 25 years aimed at bridging the faiths.

"We meet yearly," Habimana said. "One year in Tripoli and the other at the Vatican, We have been discussing how we can work together in areas in area of common interest, such as refugees and education."

Following the 1969 revolution that brought Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi to power, Catholics were allowed to keep two churches, one in Tripoli and the other in Benghazi. The formal name of the country is the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and many human rights organizations say the country is authoritarian.

The Benghazi church was confiscated a few years later, but in 1976, an Islam-Christian congress was held in Tripoli organized by the Holy See. This marked the start of the dialogue.

Sheikh Habimana said the two parties had recently discussed the issue of migrants who try to reach Europe from Africa by crossing the Mediterranean, often in small unsafe boats. "The Islamic society is trying to minimize the dangers of those who cross to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. This is an issue of debate," Habimana said, noting that dialogue has focussed on educational development in Africa.

"As you know most schools in Africa belong to churches and to some extent to Muslims," Habimana said. "We have been discussing the sensitivities in acquiring education in such schools."

The Rev Maloba Wesoga, the administrative secretary of Nairobi's Catholic diocese praised the dialogue as an "indispensable initiative" promoting unity in diversity.

The IFAPA meeting has been organized by the Union of Muslim Councils for East, Central and Southern Africa. It has gathered representatives of seven religions in Africa: African Traditional Religion, Baha'i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.

[With acknowledgments 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.]

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