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In Africa, Islam and Christianity are growing - and blending

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 26, 2006



LAGOS, NIGERIA

At first, it seems a surprising sight: inside a two-story mosque in sub-Saharan Africa's largest metropolis hangs a life-size portrait of Jesus Christ.

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Yet worshipers at "The True Message of God Mission" say it's entirely natural for Christianity and Islam to cexist, even overlap. They begin their worship by praying at the Jesus alcove and then "running their deliverance" - sprinting laps around the mosque's mosaic-tiled courtyard, praying to the one God for forgiveness and help. They say it's akin to Israelites circling the walls of Jericho - and Muslims swirling around the Ka'ba shrine in Mecca.

This group - originally called "Chris-lam-herb" for its mix-and-match approach to Christianity, Islam, and traditional medicine - is a window on an ongoing religious ferment in Africa. It's still up for debate whether this group, and others like it, could become models for Muslim-Christian unity worldwide or whether they're uniquely African. But either way, they are "part of a trend," says Dana Robert, a Boston University religion professor.

Amid intense sectarian violence in this half- Muslim, half-Christian country, these groups serve as tolerant peacemakers. Also, with widespread poverty and health concerns here, people are seeking practical, profitable religion more than rigid doctrine.

Before Islam and Christianity arrived in Africa, people here "believed in deities being close" - in gods who resided in trees or rivers and helped or hurt locals daily, explains Kamaldeen Balogun, an Islamic studies professor at Olabisi Onabanjo University in southeastern Nigeria.

"You in the West are satisfied with one hour of church on Sunday," says Mr. Balogun. But for people in Africa, who he says need so many solutions, "This is about a practical way of life," about a willingness to combine Christianity or Islam with their own traditions to "see if they can make something new" - something that will help.

Worshipers at the "True Message" mission say unifying the two theologies has made a major difference in their lives.

A slight woman with a quick smile, Kuburat Hamzat says she came here in 1998 with a severe menstruation problem. She was embraced by the mission's "man of God," a soft-spoken, bald man named Samusideen Saka. He told her, "Dancing will not kill you" and prescribed 91 laps of "running deliverance" each day. He also explained the commonalities of the great faiths to Ms. Hamzat who had grown up in Islam. That understanding, she says, changed her. "Because I understood that in my mind, I got healed," she says. Her problem hasn't recurred, she says. Others say they've been cured of barrenness, mental illness, and other troubles.

Pastor Saka explains that his father was an herbalist and that both Muslims and Christians would come to him for healing. Although he grew up Muslim, and has been to Mecca on pilgrimage several times, he couldn't comprehend Nigeria's sectarian strife. He now considers himself a Christian, "but that doesn't mean Islam is bad."

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