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Senegal Hosts Religious Tolerance Conference

Despite being majority Muslim, Senegal is a known for its religious tolerance. Muslims, Christians, Jews and adherents to traditional African beliefs came together in Dakar to discuss what tensions remain in Senegal as well as what lessons the country may hold for other nations embroiled in religious conflict.

Senegal's reputation for profound religious tolerance was both honored and tested in a two-day conference sponsored by Dakar's Cheikh Ante Diop University, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the Senegalese Association for Decentralized Cooperation, and the Israeli embassy.

Israeli Ambassador Gidéon Behar said Senegal represents a model of peaceful co-existence, but there is always the need for dialogue on the community level and especially among religious leaders.

Rabbi Dov Maimon came from Jerusalem to participate in the conference. A scholar in Jewish theology, Islam and religious anthropology, the rabbi opened the conference, saying that respectful, open-minded dialogue is essential because, as he knows all to well, if people don't talk, guns will.

He says he has heard much about Senegalese society, where people live peacefully, one next to the other, even though they do not share the same beliefs. He says he came in the hopes of learning things to take back to his region, which unfortunately is still marked by a lot of conflict and where often it is the religious leaders who throw oil on the fire.

So, what is Senegal's secret to religious tolerance?

Some say it is the unique nature of Islam in Senegal, a country that is 95 percent Muslim and dominated by four main Sufi brotherhoods. Others say it is thanks to a cultural diversity that has existed for centuries.

Though the Wolofs are the largest ethnic group in Senegal and the Wolof language dominates daily interaction, more than 20 other languages are spoken and there are almost as many ethnic groups and subgroups, each with their own traditional beliefs and practices.

Father Léon Diouf, a priest who also spoke at the conference, said religious tolerance is founded on Senegal's cultural values, such as teranga or hospitality, and the local nature of its traditional African beliefs.

For example, he says, he is Sereer. His Sereer traditions are specific to his background. The Toucouleur, Wolof and other ethnic groups each have their own unique natures as well, he says, but each group accepts that the other has a right to exist. He says I don't need to become like him, and he doesn't need to become like me. It is just important that everyone is himself. Once you have that acceptance, he says, you have peace.

Typically interfaith dialogue in Senegal has meant Islamo-Christian dialogue, so many participants appreciated that a discussion of traditional African religion had been included in the conference. Traditional practices, such as gris-gris, or talismans worn for protection, infuse everyday life in Senegal and mingle peacefully with people's Muslim and Christian beliefs.

During the two-day seminar, professors and religious leaders gave talks, the subject matter ranging from the role of the tree in traditional African religion to the influence of morality on political decision-making. Each session was followed by a forum, where audience members could ask questions or add insights.

Participants and speakers did not shy away from sensitive issues in Senegal, such as the political power of local Muslim religious leaders, women's rights according to the Koran, homosexuality and interfaith marriage.

At the end of two days, the participants formed discussion groups.

Professor Abdou Aziz Kébé from Dakar's Cheikh Ante Diop University led one of the groups. He had given the talk on Islam and human rights in Senegal earlier that day.

He says that peaceful religious dialogue may seem easy in Senegal, but the issues raised demonstrate that that coexistence is not yet a true integration between different religious communities and that there are still real problems. Yet, he says, even if meetings like this do not solve problems, they at least allow them to be identified and push us to find solutions.

Alain Boubane studies Spanish at the university. He said this conference was the first time he had ever met a Jew, much less a rabbi, and their brief conversation had already cleared up misconceptions he had about the religion.

He says this conference has shown him that if we continue to engage in interfaith dialogue, maybe one day we will reach a place where we won't talk about each other as Muslims, Catholics, Protestants or Jews but rather just as believers in God who can work together.

The conference coincided with the release of an accompanying comic book for children that demonstrates how the four religions represented in the dialogue approach rites of passage, such as birth and marriage.