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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The paradox of religious tolerance – (A Muslim man in a nun’s chapel)

Today and historically, religions often seem to be intolerant, conservative and fanatical. The capacity to live with religious difference and by toleration- the theory that permits a majority religion to accommodate the presence of a minority religion is now a major concern to world peace and stability. In this report AfricanQuarters’ senior correspondent Mercie Wamoyi explores this dynamics with reference to an encounter she had in far away Indonesia

Religious tolerance in world religions focuses attention on the attitude “that the ’infidel’ or non-believer/adherence of a particular faith may be accorded an honorable position within the social order defined by a particular faith.” This is a timely reference for learning institutions and for public policy makers, whether it is just the spoken words time remains the best judge.

Three-quarters of the world’s human population of seven point five billion live under strong government curbs on religion, or among serious “social hostilities” involving faith issues according to researchers.

In addition, the number of countries where harassment or intimidation of specific religious groups is experienced continues to rise.  For instance, countries with incidences of religious intimidation rose from 147 as of mid-2009, to 160 as of mid-2010 and continue to take an upward trend. This is according to Pew Research Center, an American “fact tank”, which is based in Washington, D.C

Based on the survey, all five main regions of the world – including the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa where religious restrictions previously had been declining – freedom of faith is coming under increasing attacks.

While the survey notes growing religious restrictions in places where that might be expected, including in Nigeria which has seen a spate of attacks against Christians, as well as in Indonesia, where pressure from Islamists forced dozens of churches to close, it also identifies growing problems in some western democracies including Switzerland, which, in 2009, banned the construction of minarets(A minaret is a tower that Islamic holy men called muezzins climbed in order to call out the call to prayer, five times a day) among others.

How do we talk about tolerance when a particular religion is declared a state religion at the expense of religious pluralism? For example, in many nations in Asia, Islam is declared a state religion and sharia law used as the basis for the constitutions. This even applies in other regions of the world which claim to be secular states, where the daily operations of the government are conducted in either Christian or Islamic manner. At the opening of the parliament the Members of the Parliament swear their oath holding the Christian bible and this also applies with the court proceedings. At schools, the Christian Lord’s Prayer is recited and what used to be called religious studies was in fact Christian/Islamic Religious Education.

Look at a scenario in Nigeria particularly in Jos city before restoration of relative calm, and other parts of the country where there is bloodshed based on religious differences. Think of the violence that is taking place in South Sudan and Central African Republic, all this is because of failure to tolerate other people’s beliefs and opinions. Or the situation in Egypt where there have been fights between Muslims and fellow Muslims, and Muslims and minority Christians.

One realizes that constitutional provisions on religious tolerance do not necessarily guarantee religious tolerance. It is one thing to protect minority religions and another thing to tolerate them.

Efforts to bolster religious tolerance in world’s Most populous Islamic Nation(Indonesia)

Religious tolerance calls for further action for it to be practical as being demonstrated here at the Eco learning Camp foundation, Yayasan Sahabat Lingkungan Hidup (Eco Camp).

The Eco camp in the populous Islamic town of Bandung in Indonesia is just not meant to equip you with environmental safety  and other recreational information but also to promote religious tolerance in a very simple and silent way as one of the workers Alvers Waloeyo explains as she takes me around together with sister Immaculate who is also on a visit to the camp.

Eco Alver, Sis Imma, MERCY WAMOYI

ALVER EXPLAINS “People of all walks of life regardless of their agama(Bahasa Indonesia word for religion) come to the Eco camp to learn how to be environmentally friendly. Here, they are subjected to a vegetarian diet and each one has to clean by himself or herself utensils used. Again at every 12:00 and 15:00 hours everyone at Eco Camp should stop their activities for two minutes.’’

As she explains, the bell suddenly rings in a soothing manner precisely  at noon(12.00hours). We are asked to close our eyes.

There was a total silence that lasted for two minutes. It was a time for my eyes to wonder around like a wondering jew plant.  However, that is part of the ecological life at the camp.

“It provides time for visitors and occupants to hear the sound of nature and interact with their surroundings, meditate and connect with the Creator.’’  She notes.

Ferry Sutrisna Wijaya founded Eco Camp  in 2014 and has about twenty workers currently  from diverse religions including muslims, Christians, buddhism among others.

Indonesia has a population of 258 million people with muslims representing over 85% . Christians are less than 10% among other minority religions. The country identifies with secularism according to various sources.

Bandung which hosts the religious diverse Eco camp in December 2016 witnessed protests amounting to religious intolerance after the Reformed Injili Indonesia Church in Bandung canceled a Christmas service at the Sasana Budaya Ganesha building after a protest by dozens of Ahlu Sunnah Defenders (PAS) members allegedly called on the Christians who had an event at the public venue to do it in their churches.

Apart from Bandung, other towns like Semarang, Yogyakarta, Bekasi and Aceh, have recorded similar incidences including burning of churches and mosques since 2007. Militants have stormed churches disrupting Holy mass and services.

However, at the Eco camp, there’s only one prayer house where all religious groups gather to pray at different intervals.

AfricanQuarters’ Mercie Wamoyi with sister Theresina in the Prayer house, St Borromeus catholic chapel

“Muslims come and pray here as well as other five religions like Christians, catholics etc. they do this in intervals respecting each and every religious practices and it is all smooth. I am happy over here I don’t see difference of faith as an obstacle. Thanks to Eco camp.’’ Alvers said expressing her joy.

Nasihin inside a Catholic chapel

A few kilometres from Eco camp, I meet Mr. Pak Nasihin, an old widower working at Santo Borromeus kapel(St Borromeus catholic chapel).  He is an ardent muslim who has worked in the centre for several years. He relates well with the nuns and workers of one of the biggest hospitals – santo Borromeus hospital, he also uses the chapel for prayers.

The Santo Borromeus Hospital is owned by the Catholics, the hospital set aside a room for prayers within the hospital for other religions including the majority Islamic religion.

Nasihin working as a cleaner in St Borromeus catholic chapel.

As I chatted with Nasihin, I asked him to move closer to the altar in the chapel so as to get better camera shot but he vehemently declines. “No, we cannot move to the altar to take a photo, it is not right, the altar is a sacred place.” He gladly educated me.

I took a moment to fathom these words from an ardent muslim inside a catholic nun’s chapel. Like many would ask, what led to his hiring since this is almost unheard of in many parts of the world?

Sister Theresina, a nun at the chapel  and also a lecturer at a medical college who have lived in Tanzania for three years explains; Pak Nasihin is a perfect example of preaching water and consuming the same water unlike in the current world where we preach water and take wine. He is not a hypocrite and his feelings and actions of tolerance are displayed in everything he does.

He describes him as a man of great love and respect for humanity, who appreciates humanity  in  the form it does exist above anything.  Bapak has infectious grin on his face and full of joy to receive me. He  takes time out of his busy schedule to converse with me.

Like the late Nobel Peace Prize winner mother Theresa of Calcutta would say, when we judge others we have no time to love them. He does not judge according to the faith, perhaps an advantage to integrate with those coming to the chapel and also another advantage to get his cleaning services sustained in the chapel.

Sister Theresina is also involved in activities aimed at promoting peace and tolerance among different faiths in the muslim dominated nation.  She mobilizes groups to sensitize them on living together as brothers and sisters despite differences in religious backgrounds and varied opinions. 

Sister Theresina in a group photograph

Sister Theresina said that, owing to differences in faith, some of the nuns working in different areas of the world are compelled to remove their veils(head covering) to attend to some patients who ask for this to be observed.

She explained that, “the veil is not key but our heart and beliefs are the most important. One of the neighbouring countries insist on this and we have to comply.’’

Religious intolerance

The level of religious hatred, oppression and violence in the world is not only appalling but difficult for many people to understand.

One’s religion is largely the product of one’s birthplace and of early teaching in their family of origin. Most people inherit their religion like their eye color, What  they learn as a child is very difficult to change when they grow up.

Religions ought to be a unifying factor if they give or not give a person the same chance for salvation.

Why should anybody become an enemy just because he or she professes a different Faith?

Effect of religious intolerance

Terrorists have taken advantage of this to cause more havoc.  Kenya is one of the largest economy in East Africa but with numerous attacks from the terrorists, in some cases during attacks, terrorists have had to target groups based on the differences in their faith.  Victims are grouped based on religious affiliations and asked to recite certain teachings to verify their religious backgrounds before they were killed.

Countries such as Egypt, Indonesia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Eritrea, Malaysia, Mali, and Morocco have clauses that protect minority religions. However, we have witnessed religious violence in those countries meaning that religious tolerance is not easy.  It calls for sacrifice and humility.

Acts of charity as a means to toleration

Many religious groups in Indonesia for Instance Egidio group from a minority religion performs numerous acts of mercy as one way of relating well with the  majority religion.

It is in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, I caught up with members of Santo Egidio community feeding the poor and homeless on the streets. Bapak (The  old man in the photo) is one of the muslim  beneficiaries.

He was very comfortable to integrate with this team in everything except  for matters religion which are kept at bay. Since he moved to the capital from his rural home in search of a better livelihood he is always provided food every Friday by this community. He is among hundreds who look to the minority community for a meal or any other form of support.

Mersie Wamoyi with Egidio community members and the Muslim man, Bapak

The community also  funds education programmes with the support from Italy. One of the team members Tanny Taher ( lady on the right holding cart’s handle which acts as beddings for  bapak  on the corridors of some buildings in Jakarta) says it was never easy  to forge a relation with the vulnerable groups including bapak.

Miss Tanny says the team members would even face rejection based on religion  but with determination and application of appropriate peace  and tolerance strategies things have changed for better.  The majority and minority team under Egidio’s support now  feel as one despite  their religious difference.

 Religion doesn’t promote violence but If you are a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is going to be violent.”  A quote by Reza Aslan , an Iranian-American author, commentator and religious scholar

Well, the world  is in turmoil due to wars and terrorist activities that are taking place.  A closer analysis of the world’s violence activities proves that religion is the major causes of these conflicts.  One cannot use a political prescription to solve a religious cancer. This religious cancer is the failure to cope up with differences. Look at the wars in the Middle East and West Africa. They are mainly caused by religious clashes. The only remedy to these crises is religious tolerance. Tolerance is a process of respecting one’s faith and one’s rights to freedom of worship and expression. This tolerance is illustrated by simple acts  by individuals or groups as in the case of Indonesia. This is  among many simple ways of forging tolerance but whose effect is great though  seem unnoticed.


By  Wamoyi M. Mercie (Indonesia)

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