Early this October, representatives of the Gideons Bible organization offered free copies of the New Testament to a Catholic primary school – a rampage ensued by Muslim pupils – the situation was recently reported by the local parish priest, Father Medrick M. Chimbwanya, in a conversation with the interbational Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
By Eva-Maria Kolmann
The school, in the traditional authority of Bwananyambi in the diocese of Mangochi, in the south of Malawi, is situated in an area where roughly 75% of the population are Muslims.
Although the school’s director had made it absolutely clear that no New Testaments were to be given to the Muslim pupils and that in no way was any student obliged to take a copy of the book, there was a subsequent uproar on the part of some Muslim youths, who tore up the New Testaments, threw them, howling at their teachers, and then threw the torn-up pages out onto the streets.
Some of the pupils, who live in a nearby Islamic hostel, denounced the New Testament distribution to their religious leaders as an "insult to Islam" and claimed they had been forced to accept them. Which in the following days resulted in Catholics fearing violent attacks by Muslim groups, said the priest.
Moreover, in a subsequent report by the local daily, 'The Nation', of which ACN has secured a copy, the events were falsely portrayed as though the copies of the New Testament had been distributed to the Muslim pupils as well. No Christian witnesses were interviewed in the report and none of the Muslims interviewed were actual eyewitnesses of the events. It was also asserted in the report that it was the parents of the pupils who had torn up the books.
(The New Testament with torn pages. © ACN)
On the day after the incident, Muslim religious leaders went to the school demanding an apology, reported Father Chimbwanya. One Muslim teacher, who had actually witnessed the events, was attacked with particular ferocity when he attempted to set the record straight. A few days later, the religious leaders were called together again to speak with the pupils who had torn up the books and to demand an apology from them.
Sheikh Disi, the religious Muslim leader in the region, called upon all the pupils to respect the faith of their fellow men. However, Father Chimbwanya explained, the other Muslims had given the impression that they were “not very happy with him as he did not really show himself to be sympathetic.”
Father Chimbwanya went on to explain to ACN that "the behaviour of the youths has been an indicator of a danger in our midst. Normally, the Primary school youth in Malawi would not have the courage to tear up any book in the presence of their teacher, let alone a Holy Book. My conclusion is that there must be some awful training given to these youths which if left unchecked, means that we may have dangerous militants in Malawi in the near future.”
He added that there was a need to initiate a dialogue at the grass roots level with representatives of Islam. Misunderstandings and incidents of this kind tended to "come and go," he said, yet so far this has never yet led to the establishment of an organized "round table" discussion with ordinary Muslims or made it possible to conduct such discussions not only at a high level but also at grass roots level.
"I expect that there will be opportunity for us religious leaders in the area to sit together to discuss on how we can work together in this area without clashes," he said.
Malawi is situated in southeast Africa and has approximately 14 million inhabitants, 4 million of whom are Catholic. Collectively, Christians of various denominations comprise around 80% of the population, while Muslims account for almost 13%. However, some regions of the country are predominantly Muslim.
The diocese of Mangochi in the south of Malawi has 255 primary schools, 34 kindergartens, and 27 secondary schools, all of which are also attended by Muslims. Roughly 490,000 of the total population of over 1.5 million in the diocese are Catholic and served by 59 diocesan priests.
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
Founded in 1947 by Fr Werenfried van Straaten, whom Pope John Paul II named “An outstanding Apostle of Charity”, the organisation is now at work in about 130 countries throughout the world.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, 46.5 million Aid to the Church in Need Child’s Bibles have been distributed worldwide.
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