YAOUNDE, CAMEROON —
To encourage tolerance in Cameroon, a country recently experiencing religious-based violence by the likes of the extremist group Boko Haram, several churches have sponsored interfaith gatherings for Christmas.
At the Evangelical Lutheran Church here in this capital city, Christians traditionally have invited Muslims to help celebrate Jesus’ birth with a feast. This year, Muslim cleric Ibrahima Toukour also got five minutes to preach.
Toukour said Muslims have joined Christians at Christmas to pray for peace, security and stability in Cameroon. He said participants also are praying for God’s protection from Boko Haram, which is preaching division and hatred. Its militants kill, steal and rape while pretending to be serving God, he added.
At the Cameroon Baptist Convention, one of the country’s oldest churches, Pastor Charlemagne Nditemen said everyone – Muslims and Christians alike – was invited to celebrate the day.
Some participated in a gift exchange, Nditemen said. "Some bring food even to the church and after service we have a common meal together…. The bottom line is that Christmas is a symbol [signifying] the love of God for humanity."
Clementine Awanga, a Lutheran congregant, said the church’s pastor has asked members to live peacefully with Muslims and to open their doors to them, as well.
A Christian, Awanga said she has welcomed not only her Christian brethren but also Muslims to her home. She said she also has honored invitations by Muslims to attend their religious events, adding that Muslim dignitaries always respect her pastor's invitations to church events.
Cameroon's neighbors have been suffering rising religious intolerance. Nigeria is threatened by the Islamist group Boko Haram and Central African Republic grapples with violent conflicts between the Christian anti-Balaka and the Muslim Seleka.
Irene Nguinga, a refugee from CAR, said Cameroon should preserve the peaceful cohabitation among its religious denominations to stop the type of carnage that her country has witnessed. There, she said, Christians and Muslims are "at each other’s throats," fighting and killing.
Nguinga praised the peaceful co-existence of religions in Cameroon, saying its people should do everything possible to preserve it.
Of Cameroon’s 23.7 million residents, 40 percent are Christian, 20 percent are Muslim and the rest hold indigenous beliefs.
In Cameroon, religious tolerance had been the norm until the country got caught up in violence involving Boko Haram insurgents. The extremist group, founded in neighboring northern Nigeria in 2002, aims to create an Islamic state in western and central Africa.
Boko Haram has targeted Cameroon for sending troops to support the Nigerian government’s military’s efforts to quash it.
Last year, Cameroon arrested dozens of Muslim clerics and their faithful for collaborating with the terrorist group. Boko Haram's allegiance to Islamic State has sparked fears the country may come under extremist influence.
In March this year, Cameroon hosted a conference on Islamic fundamentalism and extremism to educate Muslim clerics about the dangers espoused by extremist groups. All prominent Muslim clerics were invited to the capital and urged to reject such teachings.