A Kenyan Catholic Mass was interrupted last month by hand grenades thrown into the midst of the worshipping community. One child was killed and two injured in the attack, which in turn led to an attack on a nearby mosque by infuriated Christians. The grenade attack was attributed to sympathizers of a radical Somali Muslim group called al-Shabab, who were retaliating for Kenyan military efforts to drive the radical Islamists from power in Somalia. 

This tit-for-tat series of attacks is becoming typical in sub-Saharan Africa, where Christian-Muslim tensions are threatening to tear the continent apart. Kenya’s Catholic bishops have warned that a “religious war” is being unleashed in the country. 

Catholic Americans are likely to receive little news about Africa in their secular media, but it is essential that they support Church efforts on the continent.

Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, is also on the brink of widespread violence as a series of vicious attacks by a Muslim extremist group called Boko Haram have included numerous bombings and attacks on Christians. In June, when three churches were bombed in northern Nigeria by extremists, the Vatican condemned the “systematic attacks against Christian places of worship,” which it said proved the existence of an “absurd plan of hate.” 

According to the British newsweekly The Economist, the attacks have led some Nigerian politicians to talk of dividing the country along religious lines, and the Muslim assault is devastating the economy in the poor north.  

Other radical Islamist groups are fighting in Mali, Niger, Chad and southern Libya. Sudan has already divided along religious and ethnic lines between the Christian south and the Muslim north. 

Christians and Muslims are roughly equal in numbers in Africa, although there are more Christians in sub-Saharan Africa and more Muslims in northern countries such as Libya, Tunisia and Sudan. Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa now number 234 million, while Christians now number 470 million, one-fifth of all the Christians in the world.  

Policemen patrol through the remains of a burned village after ethnic violence in the Tana River Delta in Kenya's coastal region Sept. 11. CNS photo

In a continent already terribly divided by tribal and ethnic rivalries, the radical Muslim insurgencies and the frustrations of the Christian communities who bear the brunt of their attacks are threatening to damage Africa even as it struggles to catch up to the economic and technological growth of the rest of the world. 

The irony of these religious battles is that in many ways Christianity can play a strongly positive role in resolving some of the continent’s greatest challenges. Many of the most essential elements of Western-style democracy are rooted in Christian concepts of human dignity, liberty and tolerance. Religious institutions have been investing heavily in education and health care, and church infrastructures are often seen as more stable and trustworthy than corrupt governmental institutions.

For religious radicals distrustful of all things Western (Boko Haram means “Western Education is Sacrilegious”) the very values that promote tolerance, respect for women, and the equal dignity of all is seen as a corruption and threat, and violence is their only answer. 

Africa is at a crossroads: Catholic Americans are likely to receive little news about Africa in their secular media, but it is essential that they support Church efforts on the continent. While African Churches have been generous in sending missionary priests to many U.S. dioceses, they are in great need of resources, financial support and solidarity from us. 

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor