From Academia to Practice: Interreligious Dialogue Experiences in Africa

On Monday April 19th 2021, the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue partnered with the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI) to host an exclusive webinar for our current students and alumni entitled “From Academia to Practice: Interreligious Dialogue Experiences in Africa.” Alumni from both institutions spoke about the practical application on the ground of the interreligious dialogue (IRD) education they received in Rome.

JPII Leader Fr. Francis Adekunle Adedigba (Cohort II) is a priest of the Archdiocese of Ibadan, Nigeria. He serves as a parish priest and teaches courses on Islam and Interreligious Dialogue in the local Regional Seminary with 400 students. There is a center for IRD on the seminary campus that is meant to be a space for students to do their research. Fr.Francis feels it is important to equip priests with IRD skills, “Many priests working have little or no idea about dialogue, they should have some knowledge to carry out their pastoral functions.” Fr.Francis is an alumnus of PISAI and his PhD dissertation in Interreligious Studies focused on Muslim-Christian Relations, a very helpful topic for the area of Nigeria he works in. In fact, his parish is in the midst of the Muslim community and Christians are the minority. Establishing good relationships with the neighbours has been vital. What has helped has been establishing a medical centre in the parish that serves the entire community across religious lines and also the community raising funds to buy food for people affected by the pandemic. Fr.Francis said one of the biggest takeaways from his experience learning about IRD in Rome is to start any conversation with the foundation of respect for the people of other religions. He explains that “this allows a space and sets a platform for meaningful dialogue to take place. IRD is not about debate, confrontation or proving the other wrong, it is a friendly communication.”

Fr. Manuel Corullón Fernández, OFM, is the Custos of the Franciscan Custody of Morocco and a PISAI graduate. Right now based in Rabat, he is originally from Spain and has just written a book Francisco de Asís y el Sultán on the relationship between St.Francis and the Sultan. Fr. Manuel said that his experience and study at PISAI was important because it taught him how to relate to the Moroccan people. He works with the Christians in his parish community on having a positive view of the “other” despite negative experiences in the past. Fr. Manuel remarked that one of the changes in himself after studying at PISAI was recognizing the important dimension of IRD being at the service of peace and reconciliation. In his work now, he gives space to people from his community to ask deep questions about Islam. He teaches them to first see the other as a believer and then “dialogue in ordinary life looking at each other as brothers and sisters.” He feels that PISAI was an important part of his formation and it taught him that there is always something to learn from the “other” so even after 20 years, he feels like a beginner.

JPII Leader Fr. Richard Gokum (Cohort XI) is a priest of the diocese of Sokoto, Nigeria. He is currently a PhD candidate in Interreligious Dialogue at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome and also an alumnus of PISAI. Fr. Richard explained that he had come to Rome with a closed mind to fight against Muslims, but his experiences at PISAI and with the Russell Berrie Fellowship opened his mind to a new vision to be able to deeply understand and engage the “other” in ways that were not antagonistic. He has run two IRD programs in Nigeria; 1) local program assisting elderly people, from both Christian and Muslim backgrounds, to purchase food and 2) a town hall meeting on Security around the election in light of the deaths that occured after the 2011 election. He is a recipient of an alumni grant this year and he is planning to host a series of meetings for Christian and Muslim leaders in the Sokoto diocese to get to know each other and develop friendly relationships. Fr. Richard said that “We need to preach coexistence and build trust through relationships.” He feels that dialogue programs must also promote literacy and be able to connect with the lowest stratum of society.

Father Aloysius Nuolabong is a priest of the diocese of Wa in Ghana. A PISAI alumnus from 1993, he is now the coordinator of the Wa Satellite Peace Building Center and of the Wa Interreligious Relations and Dialogue Commission. To improve Christian-Muslim relationships, they have established Dialogue Clubs in 4 highschools and have seen students’ attitudes changed by the experience. One of the challenges he faces is that priests do not see dialogue as something serious but many are now facing the issue of mixed marriages.

The two speakers from Nigeria spoke about the local crisis in their country which has been ongoing for 10 years and the presence of groups such as Boko Haram. People are still losing their lives and properties to bandit activity moving beyond the northern part of the country. Fr. Richard emphasized that we need to look at this crisis with other lenses, as this is not just a religious conflict but it also has political, ethnic and economic dimensions. He also noted that people have been internally displaced by the conflict, have lost their lands and livelihoods and their grievances that must be taken seriously by the government. Fr. Francis explained that engaging terrorist groups is difficult as it is nearly impossible to have meaningful dialogue with people in this mindset. He said that direct engagement is the duty of the government and that the role of religious leaders is to distance themselves from terrorist groups and create the conditions where these groups cannot survive. He explained that by engaging local people in IRD, people who may be sympathetic to the terrorist groups’ cause, will be less likely to support these groups (eg. no longer provide them food and supplies). The hope is that this isolation weakens the terrorists’ efforts and brings the terrorist group to the dialogue table.

There was a discussion around the usefulness of official formal meetings. Some felt that the fruits IRD projects often do not filter down to the common people and these meetings do little to change the hearts of those at the grassroot level. It was noted that the grassroots engagement is more energized than formal affairs and often led by the women of the community. High level Religious Leaders’ meetings might look distant from people’s lives but the optics do send a message that can yield fruit. For example, in 2019, Fr. Manuel was a member of the preparatory commission for the visit of Pope Francis to Morocco. He spoke about how Pope Francis’s visit was seen by the people as a continuity of the relationship already established when Pope John Paul II visited Morocco over 30 years ago. Pope Francis met both with the King of Morocco and with 600 young people. Fr. Manuel explained that the easy and visible nature of these moments changed the Moroccan people and impacted their relationships on the ground.

We are thankful to all of the speakers who shared their experiences, wisdom and insights. We pray for your continued good work!