Tanzania’s Christians Unhappy About Push to Join Islamic Body

By Patrick Goodenough | October 27, 2008 | 5:49am EDT
(CNSNews.com) – A top Christian body in Tanzania is calling on the country’s foreign minister to resign for promoting a move to join the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
 
Foreign Minister Bernard Membe at the weekend said in a radio interview that he would not stand down, saying he had done nothing wrong and that no decision on OIC membership had yet been taken.
 
The Christian Council of Tanzania (CCT) late last week made the resignation demand after Membe confirmed that the government was looking at the possibility of joining OIC, a grouping of 56 countries that has stoked controversy in recent years with attempts at the U.N. to outlaw the “defamation” of Islam – a move critics say threatens freedom of expression.
 
The CCT accused the minister of violating the constitution which declares Tanzania to be a secular state. OIC members are expected to uphold and promote Islamic teachings.
 
“Tanzania is a secular state, and there must be no government involvement in religious affairs,” said the Rev. Owdenburg Mdegella of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania, speaking on behalf of the CCT.
 
The council brings together heads of Protestant denominations. Catholic leaders were also represented at a CCT-hosted press conference in Dar-es-Salaam where the resignation call was made.
 
Although the demographic statistics are sometimes contested, Tanzania’s Christians and Muslim are understood to make up roughly one-third of the country’s population of 40 million each, while indigenous beliefs account for the remaining one-third.
 
On Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous island off the coast north of Dar-es-Salaam, some 99 percent of the population of 1.07 million is Sunni Muslim. Zanzibar briefly joined the OIC in 1993 but the central governments objected, saying it was not empowered to join international organizations
 
According to the OIC Charter, “having Muslim majority” is among several criteria for membership. Most of its members do, although several – like Uganda (12 percent Muslim) and Mozambique (18 percent Muslim) are exceptions.
 
Tanzanian churches are also petitioning against a proposal, raised during an emotional parliamentary debate in August, to set up Islamic courts to deal with disputes among Muslims on the mainland. Zanzibar has had such courts for decades.
 
The so-called Kadhi courts (“kadhi” is the name given to the presiding official, the equivalent of a magistrate) would make rulings on issues including inheritance, marriage and divorce and only apply to Muslims.
 
But Christian lawmakers and church leaders say they would infringe the constitution and threaten religious harmony in Tanzania.
 
The threat of radical Islam has caused widespread concerns in East Africa. Al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in the Tanzanian and Kenyan capitals in 1998 and later attacked Israeli-linked targets in Kenya. Radical Islam has also taken hold in Zanzibar, where fundamentalists are pushing for stricter interpretations of Islamic law.
 
Last August, a group of Muslims were reported to have attacked an Anglican evangelist in western Tanzania after accusing him of making statements blasphemous to Islam.
 
Kadhi courts operate in neighboring Kenya, where they were set up by the British colonial authorities. They are only empowered to adjudicate in matters of family and succession relating to the Muslim minority – not to criminal disputes. A process of rewriting the Kenyan constitution has been dragging on for years, in part because of unhappiness over moves to make Kadhi courts part of the national judicial system.
 
It is not clear what Tanzania hopes to achieve by joining the OIC, apart from possible support at international forums or possibly assistance from oil-rich members.
 
Membe recently returned from a visit to OIC member Iran during which he discussed an appeal for Tehran to write off 15-year-old oil debt worth some $277 million.
 
Last month, Membe’s deputy, Seif Iddi, told Tanzania’s Guardian newspaper that benefits to Tanzania from joining the OIC would include “solving the problem of unstable and high oil prices.”
 
OIC members include some of the world’s major oil producers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, Kuwait and Nigeria.

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