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In time of crisis, Ivorians turn their eyes toward heaven

Church attendance is up in Ivory Coast, a nation facing civil war.

By Lane HartillSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 25, 2002



ABIDJAN, IVORY COAST

In the heavy heat of an old hotel ballroom, the Rev. Tsapkornou Johnson drips with sweat and works the congregation into a prayerful lather.

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"God doesn't need a gun," he yells into the microphone. "He doesn't need ammunition. No army can stop Him." The crowd at the Christian Action Faith Ministries explodes into applause as hundreds of hands fly up and a hail of "Amens" rain down.

Sermons like Mr. Johnson's are echoing in churches throughout Ivory Coast as a two-month standoff between rebels from the Muslim north and the government wears on.

In a country with a long history of reliance on prayer during conflict, religious leaders and experts say a sort of "spiritual nationalism" is sweeping the southern part of the country with a fervor never seen before.

"As the crisis mounts, there is a strong spirituality in which man realizes that he alone can't resolve the problem," says Mathias Dacouri Gadou, a professor of anthropology of religion at the University of Abidjan. "There is a belief only God can find a lasting solution."

While many conflicts in Africa cause citizens to turn toward religion, observers say that the intensity of the interfaith dialogue here may ensure the new enthusiasm lasts long after the conflict is over and help prevent further unrest.

But critics caution against that assumption. Even as the faithful put aside denominational and religious differences in pursuit of a common goal, they say, experience has shown that different interpretations of sacred writings in Africa can cause factional divisions within Islam and Christianity, and spur strife.

Mr. Gadou says that after the 1999 coup, a multifaith Forum on Religion was set up to show "the rest of the world that it wasn't a conflict between the religions."

Government officials are in the same position now, trying to convince the rest of the world that religious differences have not divided the country into the Muslim north against the Christian south. Government negotiators and rebel leaders both attended a peace mass last Sunday in Lomé, Togo, in which Muslims and Catholic leaders preached peace. And the minister of communication, Séry Bailly, recently told a local newspaper that the violence was socially or politically driven. "It's not a religious problem," Mr. Bailly said.

Indeed, to show that the two religions are united in finding a prayerful solution to the war, Christians and Muslims are now reaching across the aisle. For several weeks, imams and bishops alike have been preaching togetherness at joint prayer services at churches throughout Abidjan.

One Muslim, who requested anonymity, says, "All Muslims have to call into question their spiritual role in the crisis."

He says that a distancing from God and lack of prayer may have contributed to the crisis. He and his fellow Muslims have started reciting a douha - a special prayer to ask God for guidance in solving the problem.

The crisis is finding more nonbelievers looking for divine guidance.

"Some people, who are not Christian, will go to church on Sunday to cool down their nerves," says Johnson, noting that before the crisis, the average Sunday attendance at his church was between 800 and 850. Now, with 20 to 25 newcomers each week, attendance has grown to more than 1,000.

Naboudou Gnaba, a member of a Christian intercession group here that prays for a resolution to the crisis, believes that the crisis was a religious sign. "God allowed this crisis in order for the people here to mature [in their religious devotion] and the love of their country," he says.

"We see the crisis as a learning experience. We don't see it as something negative.... It's an opportunity for us to increase our faith."

Some experts question whether this spiritual unity can last. Phillips Stevens Jr., an anthropology professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, says that at times of conflict in Africa, a superficial spiritual nationalism may take hold, but because the religious divide in many countries - Christianity versus Islam in Nigeria, for example - is so deep "that even in times of intense national crisis, it's unlikely all people would unite at the national level."

"Spiritual considerations can provide a base for such unifications," Mr. Stevens says. "But specific differences will tear them apart eventually." He says that the divisions between different Muslim sects in Nigeria are one example.

Professor Gadou echoes that thought. "Everyone has their own [view of] God, with their own rules," he says. Still, the faithful here say that spiritual solutions will ultimately prevail.

"There can't be a war in the Ivory Coast, because we're praying, and God is in Ivory Coast," says Rev. Ndiaye Bassirou at the Christian Action Faith Ministries. "We pray that God touches the [rebels'] heart. War is not God's will."

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