Friday, February 14, 2014

Tanzanian bishop sees hope, despite growth of extremism

A bishop of a north-central diocese in Tanzania has expressed concern over the growth of radical Islamist violence in the country from foreign sources, while maintaining religious dialogue and hope for the Church.
“There is an extremist fringe, it is true, but the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful … the major problem is external influence, which brings with it new interpretations and even usages of Islam,” Bishop Bernardin Mfumbusa of Kondoa told the charity Aid to the Church in Need Feb. 3.

He added that inter-religious dialogue occurs at different levels in the country – there is a national committee, as well as one in his own diocese.

Tanzania is located on east Africa’s coast, and borders Uganda, Kenya, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and Rwanda.

It is estimated that the population of more than 120 ethnic groups is divided roughly in thirds among Christians, Muslims and indigenous animists. Muslims are concentrated on the island Zanzibar, and historically, different religious and ethnic groups have coexisted peacefully in the nation.

Bishop Mfumbusa said the “greatest danger” of Islamist violence the “infiltration of foreign Jihadis” and returning Tanzanian Muslims who have been radicalized outside the country.

Violence is limited but growing on the mainland, but he said Christian-Muslim tension on Zanzibar is “not new,” though “the vast majority of people in Zanzibar would prefer to live in peace as extremism poses a danger to the entire society – not only to Christians.”

The bishop added that most Tanzanians of different religions get along well: “About 80 percent of my own family are Muslims, and so far we are living together fine.”

Touching on Christian reprisals against Muslim militia in Central African Republic, Bishop Mfumbusa said he reminds his flock, “Our best hope is forgiveness. We cannot solve evil by doing evil.”

In the Kondoa diocese of Tanzania, home to more than 450,000 people over an area of 5,000 square miles, the Church runs an orphanage which is home to more than 70 children, a health center, and several small pharmacy offices in “the remotest areas in the district.”

“We would wish to do more,” Bishop Mfumbusa said, “but limited human resources hamper our efforts.”

The diocese operates 11 parishes, but the bishop said there is “a potential – a need” to open six more “immediately.” However, “we simply don’t have the personnel,” he explained, saying that this is the biggest challenge facing his diocese.

The Kondoa diocese is served by 13 priests, as well as Bishop Mfumbusa. “Often I live alone as we have only a handful a priests,” he said.

“Luckily, in Africa, most people are part of a large extended family, so people do drop in to greet me all the time. Generally, there are no official appointments and there is a steady flow of visitors – so there is no time to be lonely, really! There is also the consolation of prayer, knowing that the Lord is always near, even when we feel lonely for some reason.”

Bishop Mfumbusa is Kondoa’s first bishop. He was installed when the diocese was established in 2011. The 51-year-old had been ordained a priest of the Diocese of Dodoma, from which the Kondoa diocese was split.

He said the Church in Tanzania is blessed to have more than 500 seminarians, and the number has been growing in recent years. However, one of the “greatest challenges” for priestly formation is the scarcity of books in the country’s five seminaries, as well as a lack of communications infrastructure.

Despite various challenges, the bishop called unity “one of the greatest gifts” of Catholicism in Tanzania.

“Despite ethnic, regional and other differences, the faithful, for example, accept pastors and bishop from other parts of the country or from other ethnic groups without a problem.”