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Revival of Christianity, Islam in Ivory Coast Becomes Sensitive Issue - 2004-02-17

The lingering state of civil war in Ivory Coast is pushing many Christians and Muslims in the country to strengthen their faith. The conflict pits rebels from the mainly Muslim north against a Christian president in the south, where Christianity is more prevalent. Religious revivalism has become a sensitive issue.

Religious services at all hours of the day and night, more and more religious music on radio stations, politicians incessantly invoking God in their speeches, these are some of the manifestations of the rise of religion in Ivory Coast.

Abidjan-based sociologist Yacouba Konate calls it a mass movement of faith development.

Mr. Konate says many Ivorians believe the civil war started in 2002 because they had turned away from religion. He says they now believe only a miracle from God can save the country.

That view is fueled by the continuing deadlock over the future of Ivory Coast.

Northern-based rebels have refused to disarm because a French-mediated peace deal signed last year has yet to be fully implemented. The deal would recognize the Ivorian nationality of many northerners, most of them Muslims, whose family origins might be outside the country.

In the Riviera neighborhood of Abidjan, Imam Kone Brahima says his mosque was never as full as it has been since the civil war started.

He says Muslims and northerners in the government-run south have felt persecuted, which he says led them to reinforce their faith or convert to Islam.

Official statistics from before the war identified about 40 percent of the population in Ivory Coast as Muslim, compared to about 20 percent as Christians. Another large segment of the population is animist.

But Imam Brahima believes the number of Muslims is larger than the government figures indicated. In the south, he says many Muslims keep their faith quiet due to fears of the type of ethnic violence that followed the start of the insurgency.

The much more open manifestation of religious revivalism has been among Christians. Recently, most speeches by President Laurent Gbagbo, a southern Christian, have been filled with religious references.

Christian music is also developing, competing with other styles of Ivorian music on the country's radio stations.

Songs praising Jesus, such as this one by the group Harpe de David, have become popular on the radio. And attendance is up in churches.

Father Matthieu of a Catholic sanctuary on the outskirts of Abidjan believes most Ivorians are hoping religion can help resolve the crisis and bring back stability.

I think people renew with the faith, because they think only God can help our country, because we suffer from the war. People's faith is very strong because we are convinced only God, only God, can give us the peace.

But sociologists say southern Christians also use religion as a psychological defense mechanism against what they see as the ongoing threat from the rebels. Many Ivorian Christians feel that the rebellion is ruining Ivory Coast, and they want the former political balance restored, which was in their favor.

In contrast, many Muslims believe the rebellion and the peace accord that followed could lay the groundwork for a more fair, open, and tolerant society, if only the agreement would be implemented.

Sociologist Yacouba Konate says the sharply different views of the rebellion and the future make him pessimistic about the prospects for lasting peace in a reunited Ivory Coast.

And he says religious leaders are not using the country's new religious fervor to do anything to improve the situation.

Mr. Konate says the religious leaders contributed to the partly ethnic-based split in the country by not working for national unity when the ethnic and religious tension was growing during the past decade. He says that during the 1990s Ivorian politicians played on ethnic resentments to distract attention from growing economic problems, and the combination led to the rebellion.

Mr. Konate says while many people in Ivory Coast are coming to see growing religious fervor as a way out of the ongoing crisis, he thinks that reflects a lack of ideas about how to address the real economic and ethnic issues that caused it. And he says the more Ivorians gravitate to their religious and ethnic roots, the more difficult it could become to achieve reconciliation.