Christians Working In Muslim Cultures Study In Hartford
June 5, 2006
By FRANCES GRANDY TAYLOR, Courant Staff Writer
While growing up in Ghana, the Rev. Francis Acquah recalled that Christianity and Islam coexisted so peacefully that it was not unusual for people from both faiths to intermarry.
"My grandfather was a Muslim, my grandmother was a Methodist, and my uncles and aunties were Muslims or practiced African traditional worship," said Acquah, 49, an ordained Methodist minister.
"We all participated in events together. If someone was baptized in the Christian church, everyone came to celebrate it. If it was Ramadan, we all celebrated it. We were united as a family, because of traditional African [cultural] values that emphasize family belonging and unity and oneness."
But times have changed in his home country, and the relationship between Ghanaian Christians and Muslims has become increasingly strained, with incidents of violent clashes becoming more frequent.
Islam came to Ghana in the 9th century from North Africa. In the 18th century, Christian missionaries began to arrive and founded schools and churches that were well established by the early 19th century. According to some estimates, today approximately 35 percent of the population is Christian and about 30 percent is Muslim.
Acquah has spent the past year living at Hartford Seminary, studying Christian-Muslim relations and having discussions here that would be much harder to have in Ghana. Acquah and another student, Abraham Wilar of Indonesia, are the first participants of a seminary program designed especially for Christian clergy in countries with large Muslim populations.
Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation, though it is not officially an Islamic state. Wilar, who is studying for the ministry in the Dutch Reform Church, said deteriorating interfaith relations have led to the burning of churches and mosques there.
Indonesia is an archipelago. Some of its islands are dominated by Christians and others by Muslims. In Aceh, a Muslim-dominated province, Christians must observe Islamic practices such as wearing the veil and follow Shariah law. The growth of Christianity has sparked an apostasy movement on the Muslim islands, with harsh penalties for those Muslims who convert to Christianity, Wilar said.
When he returns home, "I hope to lecture so that Muslims can learn from Christianity and Christians can learn from Muslims," said Wilar, 28.
Dale L. Bishop, who directs the congregational relations program for the seminary, said that while a substantial number of Muslim students have studied Christian-Muslim relations there, Christians from Muslim countries were facing issues that also needed to be addressed.
"Christians in Muslim countries live in sometimes tense environments," Bishop said. The seminary is "a safe place where people can look at each other free from the external pressures they may be experiencing at home."
During their stay, each became part of a local congregation in order to experience church life as practiced in the states. In addition to their "home" churches, Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford and First Church in Farmington, Acquah and Wilar visited many others.
One practice both found amusing and interesting was the fact that some churches suspend services for a period of time during the summer months.
"I've never seen that," Acquah said. "We couldn't get away with that at home."
Acquah said that increasingly inflexible positions being taken by Christians and Muslims are fueling interfaith hostility in Ghana.
"One [factor] is Christianity's own exclusive position - the claim that it is the only religion that offers salvation - and they go about it in a very offensive way that breeds tension," he said. "On the Muslim side, [students] who can't afford college at home can receive scholarships that are given by schools in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. They come back with very radical Islamic ideas. And the way they proclaim their faith is so radical and violent that it threatens peaceful coexistence."
Acquah noted that confrontations between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Ghana have also increased, a significant change from years past. He worries that the violent clashes between the Muslim north and the Christian south next door in Nigeria could one day be the fate of Ghana.
"People are being fed information about their religious identity, putting people in very extreme positions," he said. "I realize that it's time for us to be engaged in study so that we can respond to this development."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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