- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2010

A continent that was more known for tribal shamans than for steeples and minarets has, in just 110 years, become one of the world’s most religiously devout regions, according to the Pew Forum.

A new massive survey, “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa,” released Thursday, charts how a region that gave birth to the term “global South” is now in the driver’s seat in terms of world religious practice.

Twenty percent of the world’s Christians now live south of the Sahara Desert and 15 percent of the world’s Muslims live there. It’s one of the world’s most religious places, with at least 85 percent of the population in most countries saying religion is very important to them.

The picture was quite different in 1900, when animist religions comprised the bulk of the population while Muslims and Christians combined made up less than one-quarter.

Animists and traditional African religions have plummeted since then to about 13 percent of the population while conversion rates of Muslims and Christians have soared. Muslim adherents have gone from 11 million in 1900 to 234 million in 2010; Christians have gone from 7 million to 470 million.

Northern Africa is heavily Muslim and southern Africa is mostly Christian but where the two religions meet in a 4,000-mile belt from Somalia to Senegal has often turned violent, especially in Nigeria and Rwanda.

At least 45 percent of the Christians surveyed in Ghana, Zambia, Mozambique, Cameroon, Kenya, Uganda and Chad — which topped the list at 70 percent — consider Muslims to be violent.

Far smaller percentages of Muslims see Christians as violent — Djibouti had the largest percentage at 40 percent, followed by Kenya and Uganda in the low 30s.

From December 2008 to April 2009, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted 25,000 interviews in more than 60 languages or dialects in 19 countries to ascertain the state of belief and practice among 820 million people in one of the world’s most religiously volatile regions.

They found a group of people with heavily pentecostal and messianic beliefs, in both religions. More than half of the Christians surveyed believe Jesus Christ will return to rule the Earth in their lifetimes. More than half of the Christians surveyed believe in the “prosperity gospel,” that God will give health and wealth to people if they have enough faith.

Similar attitudes were common among Africa’s Muslims: About one-third said they expect the restoration of the caliphate — worldwide Islamic rule — in their lifetimes.

More than half of the Muslims surveyed said society as a whole — not individual women — should decide on whether to wear the veil.

Although Muslims often get blamed for allowing female “circumcision,” which is the mutilating of female genitals, the practice is more common among Christians than Muslims in Uganda and Nigeria. However, the highest rates of female circumcision are in the majority Muslim countries of Mali and Djibouti.

And sizable minorities cling to aspects of African religion. More than half the people surveyed in Mali, Tanzania, Senegal and South Africa believed that sacrifices to spirits will protect them from harm. One-quarter of the Muslims and Christians surveyed in several countries said they believed in the power of charms or amulets to protect them.

With most of the populations adhering to one or the other religion, chances are, surveyors said, that neither religion will keep up its current growth rates as the pool of potential converts has shrunk. Neither religion seems to be converting members of the opposing religion in great numbers, they said, with the exception of Uganda where 32 percent of the respondents who were raised Muslim now say they are Christian.

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