Is Tanzania Radical Islam's Next Target?

Bishop Bernadin Francis Mfumbusa heads the almost three-year-old Diocese of Kondou, in the heart of Tanzania, one of 34 dioceses that serve a Catholic population of some 9 million who represent 20 percent of the population. Another 10 percent are Protestants of various denominations. Animists account for 35 percent of the population and Muslims another 35 percent, the majority of them Sunnis. The various faiths have lived peacefully side by side for many generations, but in recent years some worrisome signs are pointing at the emergence of extremist Islam. Bishop Mfumbusa spoke to international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need Feb. 3, 2014.

You recently returned from celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the faith on Zanzibar, where Muslims make up nearly the entire population. But the joy of the occasion was tempered by a growing radicalization of Islam on the island, and four attacks on the Church and its people in the last two years--most recently the brutal attack on a local priest with acid, which left the man severely burned. What can you tell us of the threat of extremist Islam in Zanzibar?

The threat of extremist Islam in Zanzibar should be understood in a specific context. One, the problem of Christian-Muslim tension in Zanzibar is not new. Some Muslims claim ownership of the archipelago saying Islam is the religion of Zanzibar. Two, radicalization of a certain segment of the population in Zanzibar is part of a worldwide trend. It should not be seen isolation. Three, there is a political dimension to religious tensions, as some people and groups portray themselves as defenders of Zanzibari values, namely, Islamic values and principles. Still, the vast majority of people in Zanzibar would prefer to live in peace as extremism poses a danger to the entire society -- not only to Christians.

Do you have concerns for such Jihadists elements causing trouble on the mainland?

The possibility of trouble in Mainland Tanzania is as real as it is in London or New York or elsewhere. Last year a Catholic church was bombed in Arusha, and the culprits are still at large. We read in the news recently that some Al Shabaab (Somalia-based militants) elements were spotted in Tanga, one of the major coastal towns. The greatest danger at the moment is the infiltration of foreign Jihadis and the return of Tanzanian radicals who have received training outside the country.

Do you perceive a larger threat then to Tanzania, just as extremist Muslims have worked their way into Mali, Nigeria, the Central African Republic and elsewhere? What forces are behind this import of radical Islam?

Tanzania has a large Muslim population estimated at 35 percent. A group known as Uamsho in Kiswahili (or "awakening") is inciting violence, especially in Zanzibar. Pamphlets with specific messages against Christians and Christian institutions have been recovered. On the Mainland at least one radio station was banned because of inciting sectarian violence. Funding for these activities appears to come from abroad as the streets are awash with audio and videocassettes encouraging Muslims to harm kafirs (non-Muslims).

What is happening to the peaceful Islam that has been characteristic of Africa for so long? Do you dialogue with moderate Muslim leaders? Are moderate Islamic leaders outspoken enough in denouncing anti-Christian violence?

A prominent Ugandan scholar, Mahmoud Mamdani, wrote a book titled, "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim," in which, among other things, he warned of the danger of oversimplifying issues. There is an extremist fringe, it is true, but the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful. In Kondoa where I live more than 90 percent of people are Muslims. About 80 percent of my own family are Muslims, and so far we are living together fine. The major problem is external influence, which brings with it new interpretations and even usages of Islam.

Tensions are evident, and signs of radicalization are increasing, but the Christian leadership stays in touch with Muslim leaders. Whether the so-called moderate Muslim leaders denounce anti-Christian violence is a moot question. Muslim leaders who appear to side with Christian themselves fall victims to extremist violence, as was the case last year in Zanzibar. Naturally, there is a fear to speak out among moderate Muslims. Unfortunately, this only emboldens the extremists.

How do you explain the hatred of some Muslims for Christians and their faith?

Some Muslim scholars suggest that Islam is the original religion of Africa. This is far from true. Islam came to North Africa in the 7th century through conquest; and made its way to East Africa with Arab traders. Hatred of Christians by Muslims can be traced to a totalitarian tendency to expunge all non-Muslims. That is what happened in North Africa in the early days of Islam.

Some Muslim leaders claim that Muslims are marginalized by Christians. That is how the justify interventions, like the recent one in the Central African Republic by Seleka Muslim rebels who made their forays under the pretext of protecting Muslims. Christians are scapegoats for all that is wrong among the Muslim populace -- and the demagogues use such arguments to work up people into hatred.

What are your arguments in helping Christians themselves from turning to violence out of revenge?

Whenever I get an opportunity I remind people of Tolstoy, who held that there is an oft-forgotten verse in the Bible, namely, Matthew 5:39, where Jesus is telling his disciples: "don't resist evil." Our best hope is forgiveness. We cannot solve evil by doing evil. As best as we can, we must learn to "not resist evil." But as the situation in the Central African Republic has made clear, it can be hard to control people after a certain point.

How can the Church help build bridges between Christians and Muslims?

Inter-religious dialogue in Tanzania is going on at different levels. At the national level there is a multi-faith committee, which brings together leaders from all religions. Even here in my diocese Kondoa there is a committee trying to address inter-religious problems. Also the church welcomes all people to make use of its institutions such as schools, universities, hospitals, etc.

Have you personally been confronted with evil?

Evil is part of human life, and no one can escape it. It is easier to hear of horrors of war, hatred, hunger and so forth when such things are happening in far off countries. Personally I have experienced tragedy when Father Ambroce Mkenda was shot and gravely wounded on Christmas Eve 2012. His crime, apparently, was to be a Catholic priest on Zanzibar. I know him well, as we were in the seminary together in the late 1980s. Indeed, as some say, man is wolf to man.

How do you cope with the loneliness of the life of a pastor -- particularly that of a bishop?

I remember when I was elected bishop of Kondoa a fellow bishop told me that loneliness would be now part of my life. To some extent this is true. I have to make difficult decisions alone. Often I live alone as we have only a handful of priests. Luckily, in Africa, most people are part of a large extended family, so people do drop in to greet me all the time. Generally, there are no official appointments and there is a steady flow of visitors -- so there is no time to be lonely, really! There is also the consolation of prayer, knowing that the Lord is always near, even when we feel lonely for some reason.

Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)