What African Evangelicals think of Florida's Quran-burning preacher

US Evangelicals are influential in Africa, but African church members focus on building schools and hospitals, and interfaith dialogue, rather than the Rev. Terry Jones's burning of sacred books.

The controversial Florida pastor, Terry Jones – well-known for his threats to burn copies of the Islamic holy book, the Quran – is at it again.

The Rev. Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, has said he will torch the book by 5 pm on Saturday unless Youcef Nadarkhani, an imprisoned Iranian cleric, is set free. He has threatened to burn a copy of the Quran and multiple images of the Prophet Muhammed.

The act is likely to stir anger among Muslims worldwide, who view the burning as a great act of sacrilege. Last April, when Mr. Jones threatened to burn the Quran, riots broke out in the Afghan cities of Kandahar and Mazar-e Sharif, in which dozens were killed. In 2011, the Pakistani extremist group Jamaat-ud Dawa put a $2.2 million dollar bounty on Jones' head. This year, as the Afghan fighting season begins, the protests could even be worse. 

But here in Africa, the question that many African Christians ask is whether the Florida pastor – who should ideally be a peacemaker – is taking the right path.

American evangelical preachers – such as Jones – can be highly influential in Africa, where evangelical Christianity is growing fast. Here, African Evangelicals take their cues from American brethren on issues such as homosexuality or the ordination of women as pastors, but when it comes to an extreme action such as burning the holy book of another faith, not one single pastor is known to have followed in Jones' footsteps.

At the moment, Evangelical and Charismatic Christians now form 10 percent of Africa’s populations. They are starting to find space in political arenas as well as well as in the development sectors. While preaching “fiery” messages that stress strong devotion to God and the much loved “gospel” of self- improvement, Evangelicals are also building schools, hospitals, providing relief, and taking care of the less fortunate. Destruction of places of worship or burning of sacred books do not appear to be among their priorities.

Across the continent, Evangelical Christians join up with the many interfaith networks to fight common enemies. When disasters such as droughts, floods, or even conflicts or wars strike, you will see pastors, bishops, imams, and sheikhs in towns and villages uniting their people to toil against the challenges. Working together against common challenges has brought about respect, understanding, and tolerance.

Even when extremist members of one faith attack the members of another faith, inter-religious dialogue has been norm, and this trend is strengthening. Where American ideologues might view Islam to be a threat, African pastors and imams view each other’s faith as holding invaluable instruments of reconciliation and peace, including forgiveness, mercy, and love.

While Africans have their shortcomings, when it comes to matters of faith, pastors and imams have a track record of dialogue rather than provocation. Keeping these channels open gives Africans many meeting points; when used effectively, dialogue results in peaceful co-existence.

In northern Nigeria, where an Islamist group called Boko Haram started burning Christian churches, some Muslims volunteered to act as guards for Christians as they prayed. Christians returned the good gesture and protected the Muslims during their prayers.

In Libya, at the height of the war to oust the late dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, the head of Libya's tiny Roman Catholic Church, Bishop Giovanni Martinelli, turned to his Muslim "brothers" to protect the Christian community. Catholics have run several medical and social centers in Libya for years, activities which had endeared them to Libyans. Despite anger among Qaddafi's followers toward Europeans, whose NATO bombers were used against Qaddafi's forces, there were no attacks against Christian churches during the war.

Whether Jones proceeds with this plan or abandons it, it is clear his approach is not finding much following in the continent. For many African Christians, this is a needless, reckless, and ungodly stunt. 

Now as the clock ticks toward the pastor’s deadline, the question is whether there is anything he can learn from Evangelical Christians in Africa.

Fredrick Nzwili is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He reports on a range of issues including religion, politics, environment, gender and sports.

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