From the pews of Mwanakwerekwe Lutheran Church, you can see the minaret of the mosque a block away. As Sunday worship wraps up, the noon call to prayer begins. Between 19th-century Christian missionaries and traders from Oman and Persia who brought Islam centuries ago, Tanzanians are old hands at living in a multifaith context.  

Mainland Tanzania is about 3 percent Muslim and 61 percent Christian, according to the Pew Research Center. Mwanakwerekwe’s members live on Zanzibar, a Tanzanian archipelago that is almost entirely Muslim, as reported in the CIA World Factbook. 

Today, Anglicans, Catholics and Lutherans live and work on the islands, mainly in the tourism industry. “Someone from the outside going to a Catholic or Anglican church here would look around and say, ‘Am I in a Muslim or Christian church?’ ” said Peter Mashauri, a tour guide who is Anglican. 

To a visitor, Zanzibar looks like paradise, but sectarian violence is not unknown. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) plays a role in maintaining harmony. 

Practicing tolerance  

“Many of us Tanzanians have grown up in mixed families,” said Shukuru Maloda, district pastor of Zanzibar for the ELCT Eastern and Coastal Diocese. “When the missionaries came, my great-grandfather told his children, ‘You are free to join the Christians or Muslims, and if you want to remain a traditionalist, that is no problem.’ ”  

Tolerance is a muscle that needs regular exercise. On the majority Muslim island, Lutheran and other Christian ministries take the lead and flex it regularly. At the Upendo Center in Stone Town, the old city of Zanzibar, young Christian and Muslim women sew apparel side by side—part of a three-year program that equips them with marketable skills while strengthening the fabric of interfaith relationships.  

Above the school and its associated clothing store, the Zanzibar Interfaith Centre (ZANZIC) offers workshops and diplomas in interfaith dialogue. A joint ministry of the diocese and Danmission, a Danish Lutheran mission and development organization, ZANZIC’s interfaith youth soccer team begins each game with Christian and Muslim prayers and sports the slogan “struggle for peace” on its jerseys. 

ZANZIC coordinates and provides in-kind support for the Joint Committee of Religious Leaders, whose Muslim, Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran members support peaceful coexistence through regular meetings and by establishing local peace committees.  

These peace committees bolster amicable relations at times of stress or transition. Elections are particularly tricky, as the number of extremists of both faiths is increasing, Maloda said, adding, “Even a few extremists can be a challenge when something bad happens on our island.” 

The Joint Committee offers pre-election seminars and stays in touch with candidates, police and government leaders. Committee leaders aim to build trust, share concerns and dreams, and promote reconciliation. A spirit of respect and understanding influences their work. “They visit my church and I visit their mosque,” said Maloda, who has studied Islam and Christian-Muslim relations.  

More than 200 teachers from Muslim religious schools have completed ZANZIC training in nonviolent teaching methodology, peace-building and interfaith skills, with the hope that the spirit of coexistence will be shared with their students. 

Exporting interfaith expertise  

Mashauri, who also serves as president of ZANZIC’s Youth Interfaith Forum, is completing the two-year diploma course in intercultural relations. His fieldwork has explored factors that have caused Muslim-Christian tensions to erupt in the past. In 2013, a Catholic priest and two young British volunteers were attacked with acid and disfigured.  Mashauri “experienced stone throwing,” he remembered. “It was like a movie.”

During the troubles, churches were placed under military protection. Maloda sent his family to the mainland and stayed on the island to keep the church secure. “Interfaith dialogue participants stepped in,” he said. These efforts by the government and religious leadership helped defuse the situation, but tensions are always present.

Some of Mashauri’s classmates are from Europe. Christians there want to learn the art of coexistence from Zanzibar’s experts as more Muslims move to Europe. “They get to know Christians, Muslims and our mixed families. We show them how to respect religious taboos and navigate sensitive issues,” Maloda said. 

Zanzibar Christians also help Europeans grasp what it’s like to be Muslim in places like Germany and Norway. “As a Christian on Zanzibar, I share the same feelings that Muslims in the United States and Europe are feeling,” Maloda said. “We are few, so we need to be very cautious most of the time because the majority doesn’t understand us.”  

Through ZANZIC, Europeans can more easily get to know Muslims than at home. “Muslims in Zanzibar are free to talk to anybody,” Maloda said. “They are not migrants, and they can speak openly about what is happening in the Middle East and other parts of Africa without fear. In Europe and America, most of the Muslims are new. You are still strangers.” 

Taking time to understand others is at the heart of the Tanzanian tradition of tolerance. “Once you understand how living in a majority situation that is not your faith affects Muslims, then slowly and slowly you understand each other and can move forward,” Maloda said.  

The ELCA churchwide organization accompanies the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) by funding a variety of its national and regional (diocese) ministries, like those on Zanzibar. There are also 20 ELCA synods that foster companion relationships with the ELCT, which is one of the oldest and largest Lutheran churches in Africa. Learn more at elca.org/globalmission.

Anne Basye
Basye, a freelance writer living in Mount Vernon, Wash., is the author of Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal (ELCA, 2007).

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