United Nations Peacekeepers would be called in to deal with the marauding band of machete-wielding young men rampaging through the streets of the Capital. They made over 168 arrests. Sporadic volleys of gun fire and barrage of teargas had to be deployed to restore sanity amid rampant looting and burning of religious edifices. The actual cause of the riots is still unknown today, but the carnage of October 30, 2014 still remains fresh in memory.
That riot was by far the greatest test to Liberia’s stability in the immediate aftermath of a fragile disarmament and demobilization program. But fast forward to February 26, 2010 when rumor and misinformation triggered several days of bloody religious clashes In Lofa County. The violence began when 14-year-old Korpo Kamara of the Lorma ethnic group was found dead near a mosque in Kornia, a town 55 miles from Voinjama, the capital of Lofa.
Eyewitnesses told local media she was a student at the Lutheran school in Kornia and had gone to a local cassava patch to dig cassava but never returned. Her death and the subsequent discovery of the body close to a mosque fueled local suspicion that she might have been killed by the Imam. When the news broke, the mosque in Konia was allegedly burnt down.
It then sparked series of reprisal attacks across the county. According to Liberia’s 2008 National Census, Christians constitute 85.5% of Liberia’s population while 12.2% of the population is made up of the Mandingo and Vai ethnic groups that practice Islam. Though predominately Christian, Liberia has seen an enviable degree of political tolerance and stability for a long period in its history but with the rise of firebrand evangelical and Pentecostal movements, the debate over Liberia’s religious identity has heightened in recent times.
The two most recent deadly religious confrontations seem to highlight the fault lines of a rather contentious subject that has been suppressed in Liberian public discourse for a long time. Up until recently, many Liberian Christian prelates had touted with the general appealing ideological mantra that “Liberia was founded on Christian Principles” and as such the country was and should be deemed a Christian state.
But as our Staff Writer reports, count 10 of the CRC propositions to “Return Liberia to a Christian State” seems to be gathering interest across all spectrum of the society, with leading Christian clerics and national political leaders, slamming the move as insensitive and intolerant. In this wise, an in-depth look at the recent Constitutional Review Committee conference and the ensuing debates over the implication for peace, tranquility and coexistence, is imperative.
Was Liberia Ever A Christian State?
Atty. Philip Wesseh, Managing Editor of the Inquirer Newspaper wrote recently: “[Liberia’s] founding fathers, who predominantly were Christians, never inscribed or incorporated in the first constitution that Liberia is a Christian nation or country. This suggests they preferred a secular state to a state religion.
This is why in the Constitution of 1847 they said, ‘ All men have a natural and inalienable right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, without obstruction or molestation from others: all persons demeaning themselves peaceably, and not obstructing others in their religious worship, are entitled to the protection of law, in the free exercise of their own religion; and no sect of Christians shall have exclusive privileges or preference, over any other sect; but all shall be alike tolerated: and no religious test whatever shall be required as a qualification for civil office, or the exercise of any civil right’.”
Wesseh said the fact that the same provisions would be retained with even much clarity in the new Constitution of 1986 and the amendment to Article 14 only serves to show the sensitivity of the nation to the subject matter.
“All persons shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment thereof except as may be required by law to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”
It went on: “All persons who, in the practice of their religion, conduct themselves peaceably, not obstructing others and conforming to the standards set out herein, shall be entitled to the protection of the law.
No religious denomination or sect shall have any exclusive privilege or preference over any other, but all shall be treated alike; and no religious tests shall be required for any civil or military office or for the exercise of any civil right. Consistent with the principle of separation of religion and state, the Republic shall establish no state religion.”
When making their case for “returning Liberia to a Christian state”, the proponents, notably a handful of politicians led by Bong County Senator Jewel Howard Taylor and a huge following of Christian evangelical and Pentecostal members, cited the fact that Liberia generally uses Christianity as the state religion of practice.
Oath in public offices is administered by the Bible and prayers in many public gatherings are offered through Christian faith. By function, they insist, the country already has a Christian identity and it is now left for the will of the people to be tested at a referendum. “We believe that the will of the majority of our people must be tested at the ballot box. To attempt to prevent that from happening only shows even greater insensitivity to the rights of the vast majority of people. If we don’t agree with the proposition, let’s vote against it.
We shouldn’t shoot it down”, said Stephen Miller, a resident of Barnesville. But opponents of the proposition are citing the religion-driven violence that rattled the country in the last 10 years as strong reason to jettison the idea of a Christian state. And with the rise of extremist groups in Nigeria and other places, even diehard religious followers are weary of the proposition.
“I am an ardent churchgoer and a devote Christian, but I don’t support this proposal. I believe this is a time bomb and we must be very careful the way we approach this subject matter, opined Elvis Collins, former student, Baptist Theological Seminary.
So far, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has walked the diplomatic tightrope, seeking to maintain her constituents in the Muslim community while at the same time pacifying her strong Christian support base at home and abroad.
She has made no public utterance in support or against the proposal. But other members of the government have. “We cannot and will not get all we are asking for in every instance. We must learn to give and take,” said Speaker Tyler.
He said Liberia has never been a Christian nation and questioned the rationale for canvassing for the declaration of a religious specific state, which contradicts the idea of a multicultural and diverse nation. Also speaking recently, Montserrado County Senator and Congress for Democratic Change political leader, George Weah, said the proposal was problematic and would therefore not support the move.
Analysts believe the proposition is illtimed and would struggle to see the light of day. “To be calling on a population of 85% Christians to vote on this proposition is simply saying the obvious. I think this will die naturally. With the outpouring of solidarity from reputed Church leaders and the Liberian Council of Churches role in handling this so far, we are confident it will be defeated,” said one of them.
Opposition from Within The Catholic Church which has a huge population has already thrown a monkey wrench into the Christian state campaign, with its Archbishop, Lewis Zeigler, expressing opposition to the proposal. He told a local radio station the proposal was a recipe for confusion. Archbishop Zeigler added that the country and its citizens have come a long way and as such, the decision will not be well for the democratic development of the country.
Following in his stead, the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention (LBMEC) issued a strong worded condemnation of the proposition, insisting the convention “does not support a proposal to make Liberia a ‘Christian Nation’.”
As the oldest Christian denomination in the country, LBMEC said it is cognizant of its baptistic history and core commitment as a Christian denomination, which does not discriminate.”There is no blemish on our escutcheon for the practice of religious persecution, since the act is the unfair treatment of a person or group of people because of religious beliefs and practice.
Religious persecution can take the form of physical punishment or forms of discrimination,” a statement issued by Dr. Olu Menjay, Chairperson of the Convention, stated. But no Evangelical or Pentecostal prelate has on record spoken against the proposal, but sermons have been largely charged with pro-Christian state passages, making the subject even more divisive than ever. Recently over 700 delegates at the Gbarnga Constitutional Review Conference overwhelmingly voted on count 10, seeking to return Liberia to a Christian Nation. The votes were boycotted by most of the Muslim delegates attending the conference. Though the outcome of the Gbarnga Constitution Review process is subject to legislative and executive reviews, the hype it has generated is already creating panic across the country. Concerned citizens are therefore renewing calls for caution. “We need to thread with this proposal very carefully. This could define our stability in years to come.
The rise of extremism in neighboring countries and across Africa should send a message that people with evil agenda are seeking to exploit the least opportunities to effect their agenda”, Carolyn Peal, Center For the Advancement of Women, told The Capitol Insider. Both protagonists and antagonists are now looking forward to what would be the decision of the country’s legislature over an issue that could have significant implication for the fragile stability the country has enjoyed over the last decade.
Culled from The Capitol Insider Magazine