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Ivory Coast's Muslims Enjoy Peaceful Beginning of Ramadan - 2003-10-27


Muslims in Ivory Coast are hoping for a peaceful holy month of Ramadan, after a turbulent year of civil war and controversial peacemaking that put them under increased pressure.

Fancy cars rolled into the parking lot of a mosque in the Deux Plateaux neighborhood of Abidjan late Sunday for prayers to mark the start of Ramadan. More than a thousand Muslims crammed into the mosque. People arriving for the service say this year they hope they will be able to celebrate Ramadan in peace.

In another area of Abidjan, known as M'pouto, 100 Muslims gathered in a small mosque.

One woman, who identified herself only as Mrs. Fadiga, said she hopes Ramadan will be able to heal some wounds of the war. "This is a month to pardon all our sins," she said. "We hope this message will reach all Ivorians. We hope all difficulties will be ironed out so we can pardon each other and bring about peace so we can live united like we used to. That is what this month of Ramadan should inspire us to do."

About 40 percent of Ivorian nationals and three quarters of the immigrant population in Ivory Coast are Muslims. They are often all referred to as Dioulas, the name of one of the country's Muslim ethnic groups.

Definitions of ethnicity and religious belief are often blurred in Ivory Coast, where Christians have long dominated the political leadership. For example, the current civil war pits northern and western ethnic groups against the south. Most of the northerners are Muslims and most of the southerners are Christians, but that aspect of the divide is seldom mentioned.

In the past two elections, the government prevented many northern Muslims from voting by raising questions about their nationality. The government also barred the exiled Muslim opposition leader, former Prime Minister Alasanne Ouattara, from running for president by raising questions about his nationality.

Although most of Ivory Coast's Muslims are in the north of the country, there are large communities elsewhere. Since the rebels started their insurgency last year, Muslims in the government-held south have complained of being persecuted by police at roadblocks and in their stores. They say police often demand money if they do not have all their identification papers and permits in order.

In January, pro-government death squads killed several prominent Muslim businessmen and artists.

A Muslim night guardsman who gives his name as Roger notes that last year there was a curfew, so many Muslims could not go to the mosque to pray at nightfall during Ramadan.

Roger says this year, even though the curfew has been lifted, he is still afraid to move around Abidjan at night. He says he will pray with friends in their own makeshift mosque, in an abandoned field near where they work.