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Sierra Leone News:CHETANYA’s View:What Sierra Leone can teach the United States about religious tolerance

CHETANYA

CHETANYA

On Wednesday evening I went with my colleague Edna to a Bible study session with a non-denominational Christian group called the Church of Jesus Christ. About a dozen people were there, and the session started and ended with a hymn. We then listened to the leader of the congregation talk about gratitude, and how people should cultivate generosity that’s proportionate to their wealth, and offered in a way that’s selfless and positive.
I’m not Christian, or especially religious in general, but my father was raised Catholic and my mother Quaker. I studied the Bible a little bit in school, though from a historical and literary perspectives rather than theological. Even though I’m not religious, I’m fascinated by religion around the world. So it was really interesting to see the Bible study session in Freetown.
The head of the congregation was speaking to a Christian audience, so what he said was framed in Christian terms. (He also spoke in English for my benefit, which was a really thoughtful gesture). But I thought much of what he spoke about was universal and could apply to many people’s lives.
The session made me think about religion in Sierra Leone. Before I came to here, the last time I travelled abroad was to Jerusalem, where I spent eight weeks studying Arabic. It was fascinating to see the diversity of religion in this part. Jerusalem is mostly made up of Jews, Muslims, Christians, but there were at least three varieties of Judaism, and countless Christian sects  Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and more.
I have to say that though it was interesting to see the cultural and religious diversity, I very rarely tapped into a feeling of spiritual peace in Jerusalem, despite visiting what many consider the holiest sites in the world. Jerusalem is a fault line, and like everything else when it comes to Israel and occupied Palestine, religion has become entangled with politics  and politics is a toxic mess.
In Jerusalem it seemed like Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in their own worlds, often totally segregated in different neighborhoods of the city. Talking to people and seeing the tension firsthand, it was clear that whatever goodwill existed between people of different faiths, is dangerously rare.
Contrast this with Sierra Leone, which is blessed with no religious conflict. Politics might be tense in Sierra Leone, but there seems to be nothing but goodwill and mutual respect between Muslims and Christians. I think this is partly because people seem to recognize that religion is personal, and shouldn’t dominate every realm of life.
Other Americans would find this hard to believe, if I also told them that every public event in Sierra Leone is preceded by prayers. This would be unthinkable in the United States, where there’s officially a strict separation between religion and state. I agree with this separation, but when I compare the role of religion in public life in Sierra Leone and the United States, I can’t help but think Sierra Leone does some things better than my country.
Though most Americans pay lip service to secularism, the forces of extremist religion are powerful in the United States. Not content to leave religion at home and in the private sphere where it belongs, Christian fundamentalists have for decades waged a war to reshape the country in their image. They want to force everyone to be as conservative as they are, even though freedom of thought and faith are central to America as a nation.
Perhaps it’s because almost all Sierra Leoneans are deeply religious, and it’s almost beyond question that everyone follows a faith, that religion hasn’t become quite so toxic. People don’t try to make the whole country follow Christian or Islamic law.
I wonder if this religious tolerance is connected to the way Sierra Leoneans sometimes blend Christianity or Islam with traditional religion. People can be Muslim or Christian and initiates into the Poro or some other bush society; they can believe in the Bible or Qur’an and in the spirit world. This flexibility in thinking and the role of religion in life is really admirable.
I think the United States can also learn from Sierra Leone when it comes to interfaith tolerance. The way my country treats citizens and immigrants who are Muslim is shameful. Donald Trump, candidate for president, has called for banning Muslims from entering the country. Even in liberal Washington state where I’m from, mosques have been vandalized and threatened.
The next time I hear about some religious zealot trying to force their values on everyone else, or bigotry based on faith, I’ll think of Sierra Leone and how the people there have managed to avoid this ugliness.
*Chetanya Robinson is a journalism intern from the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the 7th intern in as many years in an internship program with Awoko Newspaper
Friday September 09, 2016

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