Church Contributes To Nation's Division, Says Retired Bishop

By James W. Harris

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 7, 2002

It has always been evident that if war-weary Liberia would ever have the chance of recovering truly and fully from its present disastrous state, then the country's much-challenged religious community would have to continue to play a leading role in healing the wounds of the collapsed nation and its people.

It is no secret that the Liberian people and nation are hurting very badly today as the direct result of the appalling conditions imposed upon them by the despotic National Patriotic Party (NPP) government in Monrovia led by Mr. Charles Taylor. And naturally, when all else fails, it only would be wise that the country and its suffering masses turn to their various religious institutions for help, spiritual strength and guidance.

But not before the community itself look inward honestly and resolve its own problems as well as settle long-standing differences that have tended to divide them into small groups with seriously diverse interests. As a community that is supposed to bring its moral authority [or whatever is left of it] to bear in finding a lasting and “realistic” solution to the ongoing Liberian crises, there’s a dire need for the dead country’s various religious bodies to come together so as to set an example for the rest of the society.

While everything may be looking good on the surface, it can be said safely that all is not well within Liberia’s religious community as “suspicion, jealousy and [raw] envy” have long existed between groups, particularly, Christians and Muslims. Notwithstanding, the now war-ravaged Liberian nation has been able to survive thus far without it being plunged into a full-scale religious war – something that we should all be thankful for. But then, the danger looms more today than ever before, considering the current war against international terrorism led by the United States.

To their credit, though, the war-wrecked country’s seemingly divided religious community have in the past, and even now, continue to play an active role in trying to find workable and practical solutions to the country’s myriad of problems by hosting mediation conferences to address pressing national issues.

Recently (on May 24), some Liberians (including lucky me), had the rare opportunity to hear first-hand what has actually been transpiring all these years within the nation’s religious community, especially, since the devastating civil conflict started more than ten years ago by none other than Mr. Taylor for sheer greed of power and personal desire for material wealth.

“The Interfaith Mediation Committee (IMC) traveled to various West African States meeting with heads of states to discuss ways to resolve the Liberian crisis. All the proposals [that were] presented by the Interfaith Mediation Committee were accepted EXCEPT the one that RULED OUT ANY LEADER OF A WARRING FACTION to stand for election”, the Right Reverend Ronald Diggs recalled as he began his discussion on “The Role of Religion in fostering Peace, Reconciliation and a Wholesome Functioning Society” at the just ended conference of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA) that was held in Washington, DC. By now, it has become a fact of history that at least ONE warring faction leader (Charles Taylor) did become President of Liberia regardless, isn’t it!

Rev. Diggs, who is a retired bishop of the Lutheran Church of Liberia and also former chairman of the IMC, a group comprising the Liberian Council of Churches and the Liberian National Muslim Council during the civil war, said: “During [the] civil war, the Liberian Council of Churches met and decided to mediate between the Government of Liberia headed [then] by [the late] President Samuel K. Doe and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) headed by Mr. Charles Taylor.

“Since this had to do with a national issue, all denominations were invited to be a part. It was well attended and a lot of enthusiasm [was] shown by those [in attendance]. Everything went on smoothly until when we called [the] body’s attention to the fact that the National Muslim Council of Liberia should [also have been] invited”, he explained.

Rev. Diggs continued: “It is sad but true. The Christians who are [supposed] to open [their] doors to others were very apprehensive and made such statements as, ‘We cannot work with people of darkness’. [Or] ‘The Muslims are satanic’. When a consensus was reached that the Muslims be a part of the mediating committee, they [Christians] all left. They even accused us of ‘blasphemy’ because we allowed Muslims to pray at our meetings.”

“Leaving the meeting was bad enough. But they added insult to injury when they began to use their [bully] pulpits to condemn the Liberian Council of Churches and made a lot of derogatory remarks about those of us who wanted to work together for peace. How do you think the Muslims felt when they were being referred to by their Christian brothers as ‘satanic’ and ‘darkness’?”, he asked.

He then went on to blame the Christian Church(es) for, what he called, “[contributing] to the division of the [war-devastated] nation along tribal and ethnic lines”, stating, “If religion must play a role in fostering peace and a wholesome functioning society, [then] this division and multiplicity of denominations and sects must be [seriously] addressed.”

Commenting further on the war-ruined nation’s apparently fragile religious community, the Right Rev. observed: “God being so good, He allowed us to go ahead with the organization of the committee which became the Interfaith Mediation Committee [which is] now known as the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia.”

Rev. Diggs said: “The organization of this committee led to the dissolution of the Movement for the Redemption of Muslims”, adding, “when they tried to recruit from Monrovia, the National Muslim Council of Liberia refused [to join them] because they were [already a] part of the IMC (Interfaith Mediation Committee).” What a way to go for the sake of our national interests and unity!

From the above discussion and frank observation from someone “who has actually been there”, one can now just imagine what really has been going on behind closed doors within the Liberian religious community. But as the Rev. admitted: “If that [the National Muslim Council being persuaded to become a part of the IMC] had not happened, we would have been locked up in a religious war which is very difficult to resolve.”

Touching on problems that are presently facing the war-torn country’s religious community, particularly, Christians, he said: “Liberia is one of the [few] countries [that] has always maintained the freedom of worship and [of] religion. Of course, most Liberians have overlooked the other religions because they are not very active in the areas of education, medicine, evangelism and the awarding of scholarship.” “For this reason”, he continued, “The Christians [have] never tried [honestly] to dialogue with any of the other religious bodies including the Islamic faith which is the next biggest and fastest growing religion in the country.”

“Instead, we [have] continued to hold on to OUTDATED laws that only create conflict for other Religions. One sticky one is, NO WORK ON SUNDAYS. Yet we continue to ignore the [legitimate] concerns of others such as the Muslims and Seventh Day Adventists whose special days are Fridays and Saturdays”, he further observed.

The Right Rev. then said: “As simple as these may seem, they are very important issues that need to be addressed [fairly] as we look into the matter of ‘THE ROLE OF RELIGION IN FOSTERING PEACE AND A WHOLESOME FUNCTIONING SOCIETY’”.

Concluding his discussion on the subject, he called on all religious bodies [institutions] in the war-decimated nation to “work very hard [towards achieving] unity in the interests of the nation and society.”

“We need to pull our resources together so that our people [can] be served well. If we remain as splinter as we are, we cannot foster a wholesome functioning society”, he said, adding emphatically, “the religious bodies have to stop the COMPETITION, JEALOUSY and ENVY of each other and unite if [they] are to contribute” [in a meaningful way to the country’s recovery and reconciliation process].

Rev. Diggs also urged all religious institutions in the country to immediately resolve whatever differences they may have, stating, “we must begin [right here] in the United States because the same division and problems do exist amongst us.”

But the problem of division within the Liberian religious community is not new. As far back as 1999 tensions were brewing within the community. "Some tensions exist between the major religious communities. The law prohibits religious discrimination; however, Islamic leaders complained of societal discrimination against Muslims. The private sector in urban areas, particularly in the capital, gives preference to Christianity in civic ceremonies and observances, and discrimination against followers of other organized religions spills over into areas of individual opportunity and employment. There is an interfaith council that brings together leaders of the Christian and Islamic faiths", a U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, has said.

The report also said: "Although there are some Muslims in senior government positions, many Muslims believe that they are bypassed for desirable jobs. Many Muslim business proprietors believe that the Taylor Government's decision to enforce an old statute prohibiting business on Sunday discriminates against them. Most Mandingos and hence most Muslims were allied with factions that opposed Taylor during the recent civil war and still belong to opposition parties."

This should give anyone that’s interested in helping Liberia to resolve its numerous problems a good idea about what to expect!

Meanwhile, some people view the problems presently dividing the country’s religious community as small compared to the magnitude of the apparent “moral bankruptcy” that has become all but synonymous with the so-called Liberian clergymen. Besides the President (Taylor) himself flouting Christianity as the nation’s “official” religion, as he demonstrated when he prostrated faced down in a dove-white suit declaring, “God is your President”, the Church could be seen as being hypocritical and filled with sins (I must quickly emphasize here that I’m in no way trying to be judgmental).

The same U.S. Department of State report also said: “In early 1999, President Taylor dismissed all but one of his cabinet ministers after they failed to accompany him to a church service. Explaining this action, Taylor initially stated that anyone who did not know God could not serve in his Government. Subsequently, Taylor stated that religion is a private matter, but that Cabinet ministers are required to be present at public ceremonies that the President attends. A few weeks later, Taylor rescinded this action and reinstated the ministers at the urging of diverse individuals and organizations. Many informed observers interpreted Taylor's actions as a miscalculated attempt to find a generally acceptable pretext to reshuffle his Cabinet.” This shows how religion is presently being misused or abused today in the country.

Even now, we still hear about so-called ministers of the gospel having children out of wedlock; actively engaging in child-sexual abuses and chasing each other’s wives relentlessly; to mention just a few of their highly immoral practices, and yet, Liberians wonder why the Good Lord has forsaken them. We also see a large number of Liberians still going to “prophet” churches [just as they did back home], not because they believe in God, but mainly because they are falsely led to believe that “Brother This” or “Brother That” can bring them good fortunes, even though, the ‘good. Book’ says: “By their Fruit, ye [we] shall know them.” But of course, only those that are spiritually and morally weak could succumb to such baseless claims.

Further, we still hear so-called pastors saying smilingly, “do as I say do; but don’t do as you see me do” and get a laugh out of it probably without realizing the negative consequences of such fatal actions. “There’s nothing wrong with that”, I’ve often heard Liberians saying. Sure, there’s something - a lot of things - wrong with that!

Such selfish behaviors and/or immoral acts have contributed in one way or the other to our country’s present moral decay, including, broken homes, “illegitimate” children and rampant corruption, etc. And unless we change our thinking and ways of doing things as a people, there’s very little chance or hope that Liberia would ever recover any time soon from its present sorry state.

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