Interfaith bridge-building and violence aversion in Chad

[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In the late 1970s, Chad entered a civil war for political power between geographically- and culturally-based groups. Even though the civil war pitted Christians against Muslims, religion was not a major motivating factor for militants. Over the past decade MCC has partnered with the department of Ethics, Peace and Justice (EPJ), an operative branch of
the Protestant churches in Chad, to promote conflict transformation in interfaith settings. This article examines the religious context and history of Chad and discusses how EPJ draws upon religion as a resource for proactive peacebuilding and violence aversion.

In terms of religious affiliation, Chad’s population is divided among Muslims (55%), Catholics (20%) and Protestants (15%), with the remainder practicing forms of African traditional religion. Religious identity is tightly intertwined with tribal and ethnic affiliation for geographic reasons. Islam entered northern Chad with Arab traders in the
twelfth century, while western missionaries arrived from the south during the twentieth century. Both religions are blended with rituals and beliefs that predate the arrival of Abrahamic faiths in Chad.

Like other colonial administrations, France’s colonial regime exploited and exacerbated ethnic and religious divides. Chadians in the overwhelmingly Muslim north routinely resisted the imposition by the colonial authorities of a French education system. The colonial regime, in turn, disproportionately appointed people from the predominantly Christian south to lead various government departments. Following independence in 1960, it was therefore southerners who occupied the majority of civil service positions. The
country’s first president, N’Garta Tombalbaye (a Christian southerner), appointed a majority of Muslims (65%) to his first cabinet. Originally named François, Tombalbaye established a tyrannical one-party system that brutally promoted a top-down cultural revolution that pushed for movement away from Christian and Muslim influences towards a recovery of Chadian traditions. Following a decade of armed rebellions, Tombalbaye
was assassinated in 1975, plunging the country into an armed power struggle between the predominantly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south that continued into the 1990s. The religious differences between these two regional populations led adherents to vilify the religion of the other. Religion remains a dividing factor in population, with the
government perceived as being dominated by Muslim ethnic groups.

Within this post-civil war context, EPJ has worked to strengthen relationships across religious divides as part of peacebuilding and violence prevention efforts across the country. Over the past decade EPJ has earned a reputation as a leading organization of interfaith dialogue. Initially EPJ addressed conflicts within the church, but in 2008 expanded its violence aversion efforts by hosting an interfaith conflict transformation workshop for 30 Muslim and Christian leaders. This workshop became an annual event in N’Djamena, running through 2011. In 2012 EPJ stretched these interfaith peacebuilding efforts beyond the capital to host a workshop in Mongo. Momentum grew, with EPJ initiating workshops specifically targeting women and youth. Since 2013, EPJ has organized 29 week-long workshops for over 1100 participants in 15 different locations.

While current violent conflicts in Chad today flow from multiple sources (such as competition over resources and political power), participants in these conflicts routinely frame the conflicts in religious terms, making interfaith peacebuilding efforts that draw on religion as a source of conflict transformation a vital necessity. EPJ’s workshops highlight common ground between faiths and offer alternatives to violence. Each workshop is attended by local representatives who are selected by the national religious
bodies of each faith. EPJ strives to have 40% of workshop participants be Muslim, along with 30% each for Protestants and Catholics, although these percentages vary.

At the beginning of each workshop, participants are usually quiet, tense and polite, sitting with their co-religionists. Over the course of the workshop participants hear and discuss stories from sacred texts that describe how both Jesus and Muhammad taught their followers to do good to their enemies.

EPJ workshops center on a relatively set course of seminars led by EPJ staff that promote strong interfaith relations, present nonviolent conflict management strategies and teach mediation techniques. EPJ consistently invites MCC staff to contribute to the overview of the biblical basis for peace. EPJ also invites leaders from Muslim and Catholic institutions to give seminars on how their respective faiths understand peace. Catholic participants draw on Catholicism’s rich tradition of social justice teaching, while Muslim scholars highlight passages from the Qur’an and stories from the hadith (traditions about the prophet Muhammad) that exemplify peacebuilding in action. The workshop leaves considerable time for group discussion, encouraging thoughtful engagement with presenters and among participants. By the end of the workshop, participants typically report transformed perspectives. For example, after a workshop in the eastern city of Am Timan, one of the Muslim participants, Imam Ibrahim Abdoulaye, stated: “We have never heard teaching like this before; it needs to continue. We want to help.”

EPJ routinely faces two significant hurdles as it works to break down barriers between participants. First, Muslim and Christian participants need to hear that their own faith holds deep and rich peace teachings. Both Christian and Muslim sacred texts contain plenty of examples of violence seemingly portrayed in positive terms, from the conquest narratives of the Old Testament and literalist interpretations of Revelation, to violence
carried out by the nascent Muslim umma (community) in Medina, the conquest of Mecca and certain hadith about Muhammad. Participants often arrive at the workshop convinced that their sacred texts justify violence. EPJ staff and the invited speakers complicate this understanding by lifting up examples from Muslim and Christian scriptures that reflect a
commitment to peacebuilding, with a specific emphasis on Jesus’ life and teachings (especially the Sermon on the Mount) and Muhammad’s respect for both Jewish and Christian communities as well as his teachings on conflict resolution.

The second obstacle is to dispel notions of persecution that Christians and Muslims hold concerning one another. Both Muslim and Christian participants will point to the other with accusatory claims, citing current or historical outrages, such as Boko Haram’s massacres or the history of Africa’s colonization by western powers such as France. Citing such histories and present realities, Christian and Muslim participants can retreat into defensive postures that justify violence. EPJ works with participants to overcome such defensiveness and to focus on past histories of cooperation and coexistence and on possibilities for the future.

EPJ’s interfaith peacebuilding efforts have gathered momentum since 2013, with its conflict transformation workshops increasingly in demand and gaining support from Chadian leaders. Challenges certainly remain, including establishing better mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating the longer-term impact of the workshops on communities where the workshops are held. Yet EPJ’s experience has already clearly demonstrated
that participants emerge from the interfaith peacebuilding workshops with an increased desire and willingness to collaborate across religious lines, which is no small feat in a context in which appeals to religion too often stoke rather than transform conflict.

Mark Tymm works with MCC partner, Ethics, Peace and Justice, in N’Djamena, Chad.

Learn more:

Abu-Nimer, Mohammed and David Augsburger. Peace-Building by, between and beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009.

Azevedo, Mario J. Roots of Violence: A History of War in Chad. London: Routledge, 1998.

Flood, Derek. Disarming Scripture. Metanoia Books, 2014.

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