Religious tolerance goes a long way in Ivory Coast. Muslims, Christians join in building places of worship

In this small, dusty village of 2,000, the phrase ``peace on earth, goodwill toward men'' is not just a clich'e - it's a way of life. ``Our grandparents used to live in peace with each other, and they always advised their children not to bring any problems into this village,'' said Bakary Essy, the village elder, whose son is the Ivorian ambassador to the United Nations.

Kouassi-datekro's pacifism manifests itself in an extraordinary religious tolerance, highlighted recently when Muslims and Christians - and even a few animists - rolled up their sleeves to build a mosque and a Roman Catholic church. Although the masons, welders, and carpenters were professionals, all the unskilled work was done by the villagers - men, women, and children of all religions.

``Everybody in the village did whatever they could,'' said Mamadou Ouattara, one of the Muslim elders. Like the country as a whole, about half the population of Kouassi-datekro is animist; a third Muslim; and 17 percent Christian - mostly Catholic.

The idea for the joint project came from the Essy family, which is Muslim. When the son, Ambassador Amara Essy, announced plans to build a new house, his father suggested he build something for the entire village instead. The ambassador knew the Catholic church had outgrown its building. Thus, he decided to build a new church.

``Then, it was decided that if the Catholics were going to have a new church, we Muslims should, too,'' said the father.

The ambassador contributed an undisclosed amount to the cost of both buildings, and solicited a contribution from President F'elix Houphou"et-boigny, who frequently contributes to or pays the entire cost of building mosques and churches.

Unlike some African countries, which have periodic outbreaks of religious strife between Muslims and Christians, the Ivory Coast has never had such problems. Village elders say there has always been a ``live and let live'' attitude among Christians and Muslims in Kouassi-datekro. ``We all pray to the same God ... and the Koran teaches us to be tolerant. Here we have many families with both Muslims and Christians living together in peace,'' said Mr. Ouattara.

He said that in the 1960s, when there were only a handful of Christians in the village, the elders met and decided they needed a church and a priest. ``We sent a delegation made up of both Christians and Muslims to a Catholic church in a nearby town to request that a priest be assigned here,'' said Ouattara, who was a Muslim delegate.

Catholic and Muslim leaders in Abidjan, the capital, attribute the lack of religious strife here to the natural pacifism of Ivorians, and to the fact that the country is still basically animist, despite the coming of Christianity and Islam in the last century..

``There is a natural peaceful coexistence that exists among Ivorians,'' said the Rev. Simione Atsain, a priest who represents Catholics on a special commission that has been meeting once a month for 17 years to encourage understanding between Christians and Muslims. The group was set up in 1970 in response to the second Vatican Council, which, in 1965, recommended that Catholics promote good relations between themselves and non-Catholics.

Ahmed Tidjane Ba, a Muslim member of that commission and the imam (leader) of a new mosque in the wealthy Abidjan suburb of Riviera, agrees. ``Africans in general and Ivorians in particular are especially tolerant of any kind of religion. It's partly because animism is a very tolerant religion. Each village has its own little gods,'' he explained. Those gods usually are out of wood or bronze. ``When one village has a problem that they can't solve with their own gods they borrow the gods of the neighboring village.''

Religious strife in other African countries usually is racially or politically motivated, Mr. Ba said. For instance, in the Sudan, problems arose because the Muslims are Arabs and the Christians are black Africans. In other countries, he said, trouble has been sparked when one religion is in the majority and uses its power to suppress the minority.

``Christianity and Islam by nature are religions of tolerance,'' he said. ``They only become oppressive and violent when they are used for political aims, which has not happened here.'' He said that Houphou"et, President since independence in 1960, has always wielded an even hand, politically, with regard to religion, even though he is a Catholic. Although Catholics are in a slight majority in Houphou"et's government, Muslims hold prominent positions throughout, he noted.

Fr. Atsain said the President is also even-handed with his financial contributions. If he builds a church, cathedral, or basilica, he usually builds a mosque soon after. For instance, said the father, the government paid for both the $9.2 million cathedral that dominates the Abidjan skyline and the new $1 million mosque in Riviera.

Pierre Jaboulay, the priest at the Kouoassi-datekro's new church says that, in the 22 years he has been working in the Ivory Coast, he has never been badly received by a Muslim. He says both animists and Muslims here feel friendly toward Christians because most of the Ivorians learned to read and write in primary schools built by Christians.

The Catholics, who began building primary schools in 1898, now have 269 primary schools and 27 high schools in the country. The government did not begin building schools until the 1950s.

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