A breaking story on the BBC adds to the urgency of an earlier post today about the religious war gaining momentum in Africa. The latest attack by a gunman on a church in Maiduguri, Nigeria is reported to have killed five people including the pastor of the church.
Meanwhile, the death toll in the Kano attack has been revised upward. At least 16 people are now reported dead and six are in serious condition after a bomb and gun attack on a group of Christians conducting a prayer service. Other reports place the death toll at 20.
Both Maiduguri and Kano have been scenes of previous religious violence as radical Islamic groups claim “credit” for attacks on Christian churches, schools and believers in northern Nigeria.
Nigeria is a major flashpoint for the religious conflict seen across Africa as a surging Christian presence shakes the confidence of traditional Islamic communities and as radical currents in global Islam make themselves felt in sub-Saharan Africa. Since independence, Nigeria’s Christian community has doubled as a proportion of the population (from roughly a fourth of the population to roughly one half) as animists and believers in traditional African religions converted to Christianity. Additionally, some Muslims have converted.
The surge in Christian numbers comes at the same time that the Christian population and the predominantly Christian regions of the country are becoming more prosperous than the mostly Muslim north. Political power is also flowing to the south.
The political instability across sub-Saharan Africa often has religious elements that the mainstream media likes to downplay. This is partly because many secular reporters and some diplomats genuinely don’t understand how important religion is as a force in these countries and partly because of the “Voldemort” problem: if we talk too much about religious violence, there will be more of it.
But the reality is that for many Christians and Muslims in Africa today, religion is at the core of their identities and helps shape their political and social visions. Today those visions are in conflict, not in one or two places but across the breadth of Africa where Islam coming down from the north meets the Christian surge from the south and the coasts.
Americans are far more engaged in this process than most media reports suggest. Close links between Christian groups in Africa and those in the US have recently made the news because of controversies in Africa over homosexuality, but that is only the tip of an iceberg. Perceptions in the US about the nature of Islam and the relationship between Christianity and Islam are more heavily influenced by religious violence and competition in Africa than the mainstream media realize. When churches are being firebombed, pastors shot, and (as in Sudan for many years), Christians are being rounded up and sold into slavery by warrior bands who claim to fight in the name of Islam, there can be a certain chilling effect on interfaith dialog.
It would be a mistake to overstress the religious conflicts in Africa, but at the moment the US press is in no danger of that. The relationship between Christianity and Islam worldwide is a major factor in America’s world standing; the media needs to do a better job reporting on the conflicts in Africa and in tracing the ways in which that news comes back through religious news agencies and other sources to affect perceptions and views back here in the United States.
The rise of Christianity in Africa does more than create some political issues and conflicts. It also creates new and important areas of communication and influence for democracy promotion, state building and cooperation between the US and other western countries (like Brazil, also a source of Pentecostal missionaries in Africa with many religious ties) and much of Africa. Building on these new ties is one of America’s great international opportunities in the 21st century; the failure of our press to cover the colorful and important story of the Christianization of Black Africa is one of the biggest media failures of our time.