As Christianity grows in Africa, both church and culture adapt. Church has also proved resilient in face of political pressures

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Has Christianity, frequently identified with colonialism in Africa, found a firm foothold in black, independent Africa? The answer is a resounding ``yes,'' according to the following yardsticks:

The recent, rapid Africanization of the church.

The rapidly rising number of Christian converts.

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The absence of widespread and systematic political persecutions -- although there are exceptions.

The more liberated role of women.

Today, Africans occupy the highest of church positions, from cardinals and archbishops in the Roman Catholic Church to archbishops and bishops in the Anglican Church.

Although Kenya and Uganda each had a black bishop in 1960, most bishops in Africa at that time were white. Few Africans were placed in positions above that of parish priest.

In one of the greatest breakthroughs, earlier this year Desmond Tutu was made Anglican bishop of Johannesburg, a community in which Anglican church membership is largely white. But the mere elevation of blacks to the religious hierarchy has not in itself alleviated tensions rooted in cultural differences. In some cases the appointment of black cardinals and archbishops seems to have increased tensions between whites and blacks, between European and African cultures.

The history of polygamy in Africa and the importance of marriage and family life, for instance, continue to complicate relations because of the church's stand on issues such as monogamy, and in the case of Rome, of celibacy for ordained priests.

At least one African cardinal in the past has referred to celibacy as ``an imported question'' produced by foreigners. Other prominent African bishops and cardinals have spoken in favor of the ordination of married men.

While Rome is willing to acquiesce on some points, such as the adoption of traditional African music in liturgies, it is prepared to go only so far. In 1983 Rome recalled Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, one of its highest ranking churchmen and the former archbishop of Lusaka, Zambia, for ``faith healing'' and ``exorcism.''

A potentially far more serious threat to the church has been political interference in a continent where strongly nationalistic governments expect the churches, and other key institutions, to fall in behind national policies.

Although such interference has been quite marked in the past in Ghana, Guinea, Uganda (under President Idi Amin), and Zaire (where a policy of dropping Christian names in favor of African names was introduced), the church has shown remarkable resilience.

So strong was religious sentiment in Ghana that the political leadership was obliged to pull back. And in Zaire, President Mobuto Sese Seko, who had previously targeted leading members of the Roman Catholic Church for anti-Christian pressures, was forced to pull back. Religious observers think it significant that President Mobuto accorded Pope John Paul II a warm welcome on his recent visit there.

One region where sharp conflict persists between church and state is Zimbabwe. There, the Roman Catholic Church has been highly critical of civil-rights violations against the minority Ndebele people in Mashonaland by government security forces.

North of Zimbabwe in Zambia, smaller sects such as Jehovah's Witnesses and the Lumpa church, led by an African prophetess, have suffered notable religious persecution in recent years. But tensions have been eased largely through the intervention of President Kenneth Kaunda, who received a Christian missionary upbringing.

Aside from these examples, religious experts see no systematic trend of persecution against the church in black Africa today, even though the position and influence of the church was undercut by the insistence of state authorities to take over church schools on independence.

But J. D. Y. Peel, professor of sociology at Liverpool University, claims that in many countries a modus vivendi has been worked out between the churches and the state. He says this is particularly true in those countries where ``state structures are very weak and fallible.'' In such cases the church provides a valuable network of services.

Religious scholars also agree that the church has also had a marked influence on the role of women.

In ``Christianity in Independent Africa'' by Edward Fashol'e-Luke, Richard Gray, Adrian Hastings, and others, the authors maintain that ``what is potentially the most radical social contribution of the churches in Africa has been proceeding quietly and almost unnoticed.

``If the change in social relationships between men and women is to be the greatest world revolution of the 20th century . . . then the churches in Africa are uniquely placed to take a major part in this. Women are generally the backbone of their membership, providing in many cases much the greater part of the churches' local financial resources.''

Churches -- in their schools, hospitals, and religious congregations -- have provided completely new and more liberated roles for African women.

Prof. Lamin Sanneh of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University says there is no doubt that emancipation of women educated at Christian schools has played a major role in the decolonizing process, allowing them to become politicians and trade union leaders and to compete fully in the civil service.

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