Senegal, where Christians and Muslims live together in peace

Stories of cohabitation between believers in Christ and Muslims. Journey to Dakar to discover the friendly relationships between the two communities, for which hospitality is a fundamental value.

Jan 26, 2018

By Cristina UguccioniI
“If relations between Christians and Muslims in other countries were as serene as those living in Senegal, there would be more peace on earth. Here the cohabitation between the faithful of the two religions is neither a theme nor a motive for discussion since it is lived as a fact”. These are Flavio Facchin’s words, a 55 years old priest, belonging to the Congregation of the Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate, he is currently the treasurer of the Senegalese missions. He arrived in this country 20 years ago and for a decade he led the parish of Maria Immacolata, the only parish in Parcelles Assainies, a large suburb of Dakar where most of the population is of Islamic faith (95%, as in the rest of the country).

The gift of a crucifix
On July 16,2016, during a solemn ceremony, Moussa Sy, the Muslim Mayor appointed Father Flavio honorary citizen and gave him the keys to the city because of the many works that the missionary, together with the parish, promoted for the benefit of the whole community.

“I remember that the mayor wanted to give me a personal gift on that day,” Father Flavio says. It was a painting that portrayed the crucifix. I was moved by the gift and surprised by the choice: I was expecting it to feature the Virgin Mary as Muslims take Her very much into account and even come to church to pray before the statue of Our Lady. Instead, the mayor chose the crucifix, which in Muslim culture is little understood. I remember that in his speech he said, “My second religion is the Church. For him Christianity identified with the church he had had the opportunity to know. We have been working together for many years looking for the best solutions to help the population and there has always been great understanding among us”.

The parish’s activities
450,000 people live in this area of Dakar: 22,000 are Catholics. It is a young and very active community, Father Flavio tells us: the children who participate in the activities of the various parish groups are more than 2,500, each year the members of the catechism are about 1,200 and in Easter time, we administered on average between 120 and 180 baptisms.

Pastoral activity is demanding but also rewarding” he continues:” The faithful are very proud to be Christians and are generously engaged in the various social works that we have begun and which, of course, are also destined for the Muslim population”. There is a center in the parish to welcome children from the poorest families, training classes for young people are held along with a micro-credit project for women. There is also a large library, which houses almost 10,000 volumes, an elementary school attended by 720 children and classrooms where the children of the neighborhood can study peacefully in the evening. Caritas takes care of poorest families and, as far as possible, takes care of their primary needs.

Christians and Muslims in the municipal council
Over the years Father Flavio has invited the faithful to engage also in institutions and since the 2013 elections, for the first time, six Catholics sit in the municipal council (40 people) and a Catholic lady has become deputy mayor. Christians and Muslims work together in a serene atmosphere: they have organized numerous social, educational and health initiatives. And they have also promoted sporting and convivial meetings that help to strengthen the social bond”.

Two key episodes
Relations between Christian and Muslim religious authorities are also very friendly; Father Flavio cites, among the many, two episodes that he considers key, “Some time ago a boy came to tell me that the imam of the neighborhood wanted to see me. When I came to him I discovered that he had been ill for a week: he had called me because he wanted us to pray together. Another imam, two years ago, when his third son was born, asked me for the courtesy of reaching him because he wanted me to bless the newborn”.

According to the missionary, the happy coexistence between Christians and Muslims that characterizes Senegal and that is unique in this area of Africa is due to several factors, “First of all, this people, composed of about ten different ethnic groups, has a strong sense of hospitality. Teranga (which in the Wolof language means hospitality) is a distinctive feature of this society and the Senegalese are particularly proud of it. Moreover, the presidents of the Republic who have succeeded each other since independence (1960) to date - the first was Christian, the following three were Muslims (two with a Christian wife) - have spent a great deal on the unity of the country. The Catholic Church, for its part, has never spared itself and has taken care of all by winning the esteem and gratitude of the population of Islamic faith.”

Muslim friend
Among the Muslim friends of Father Flavio is Ababacar Niang: 39 years old, married (with the “monogamy” option), he has three children and works in the town of Parcelles Assainies as head of the office of religious activities. Among Christians and Muslims living in this area of Dakar - he says - relations are good, we share moments of joy and difficult moments, we respect each other: on the occasion of religious celebrations we exchange good wishes, we pray for each other. There are Muslim people who choose a second Christian name for their children and Christians who choose an Islamic one. I have Christian friends and relatives, I speak at the demonstrations organized by the parish (for example, the patron saint’s feast) and, together with many Muslims (including the mayor Moussa Sy), I participate in the great Christian pilgrimage to the Marian sanctuary of Poponguine. Here we live in communion: I could say that we form one family.

Mutual knowledge and respect
Reflecting on the history of relations between Christians and Muslims in Senegal, he adds, “This country is particular, just think that Senghor, the first president of the Republic, who was Catholic, had the support of many Muslim dignitaries during his election and, the great mosque in Dakar was realized also thanks to him. I think that mutual knowledge and respect make a significant contribution to building peaceful coexistence between the faithful of different religions. It is important that there are people in the community who are open-minded, capable of educating others with concrete gestures. Our mayor, for example, participates in Muslim activities, but is also present in Christian activities”

The future, hopes and fears
For some time now - Father Flavio notes - since some neighboring countries, in particular Mauritania and Mali, are unstable and small groups try to trespass to carry out acts of violence, people fear that even Senegal may be affected by a terrorist attack, “Thanks to God the police are very vigilant, the controls are accurate. This reassures us very much. And, together with Ababacar, he concludes, “We all hope and pray that Senegal remains the country we know.”--la stampa

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