03/14/2016, 14.24
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Living among the Muslims of Ivory Coast, Fr Valmir sows reconciliation

From Brazil, the PIME missionary has been in the country’s north-west since 2013. Despite the threat of Boko Haram and mutual mistrust, he has created the conditions for a peaceful and fruitful dialogue between Christians and Muslims. For him, Christians feel a duty to “learn more about the religion of the other”. Living among Muslims, “one is called to give an account of one’s faith."

Rome (AsiaNews) - Father Dos Santos Valmir Manoel is a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME). Yesterday, the country was hit by a deadly attack at Grand Bassam. Since his arrival in 2013, the clergyman has worked on building peaceful and fraternal relations with Muslims, overcoming initial mistrust. AsiaNews spoke to him before he returned to his mission, which coincidentally was on the same day as the terrorist attack.

"We know that there are Islamic fundamentalist 'missionaries' in Ivory Coast, even though the threat of Boko Haram is not yet present. We are on alert because they have already started in Burkina Faso and other neighbouring states. These terrorist groups cannot come as a block. [Ivorian] society would not accept them. Hence, they send people who can fit in and begin to create the right conditions. Slowly, they send reinforcements until the time comes that they are ready to act,” said Fr Valmir who almost prophetically spoke to AsiaNews on the eve of his return to Ivory Coast.

In his parish, despite the threat of terrorism, the clergyman has created the conditions for a peaceful and fruitful dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Hailing from Piaui, a state in north-eastern Brazil, he undertook his vocational path in his diocese, until he heard about "that part of the world that had not yet heard about Jesus.”

In view of this, “I told myself whether one day my vocation would take me there. Missionaries joke that that Coca Cola is more widely known than Jesus Christ, and this left a mark on me. If that were true, I wanted to change things! So I contacted PIME and through the magazine 'World and Mission' I met some missionaries."

Bound for Africa in 2013, the missionary arrived in Kane, north-western Ivory Coast, 600 km from Abidjan. Here he found a situation that was unfamiliar to him. "Used to Brazil, where the vast majority of the population is Catholic, I found myself in the minority". Locally, "Muslims are more than 90 per cent. Animists and followers of traditional religions are 7-8 per cent. Christians are only 2 per cent, 1.5 per cent Catholic.”

In Kane, Fr Valmir serves a community of 2,000 people, split between the city and surrounding small villages. The priest is happy to live in close contact with people of other religions. "In such a situation, one is called to give an account of one’s faith, and I have found out that I live my faith better in Ivory Coast, in a Muslim context, than where Catholics are the majority."

Still, Christians are often marginalised. Indeed, "A nun friend of mind told me that she stopped going to the market because they refuse to serve her because she is white and Christian."

For years, the atmosphere between Christians and Muslims was tense, poisoned by hatred and suspicion. Lately, however, thanks to Fr Valmir’s work (and that of Fr Davide Carraro, another PIME missionary), the situation has changed.

"We started to seek unity with Muslims,” Fr Valmir said, “respectfully, trying to learn more about the religion of the other, in order to live together. The approach was not easy, but we have increased our visits with the local imam, overcoming mistrust. As Christians, we cannot live next to someone without speaking to him. This is the evangelical message that drives us towards them."

Fr Valmir’s inter-faith journey reached its apex at a joint prayer meeting in July 2015, shortly before the presidential elections (held in November). "At that time, tensions were running high,” he said. “So we thought of using the opportunity to meet with Muslims and pray for peace and unity. It took a bit of time to convince everyone, but the imam met his council and agreed to the idea.

“On the day of the prayer, Muslims came in large numbers. Each community (Protestants included) had a moment for their prayer. It was nice because, for the first time, we were there to pray together. Everyone had the feeling that our God was the same. Everyone one happy. “We did not know that your prayer was so intense,” some people said. It was a moment of discovery of the other faith. "

"The November elections went off without a hitch,” the missionary explained. “There was no violence. We could not believe it! God heard us.” And that moment of reconciliation did not go unnoticed by political authorities. "Right after the elections, the provincial governor asked us to conduct another interfaith prayer, to give thanks for the vote’s success,” Fr Valmir said. “They saw the importance of this event for the country."

In view of the closer relationship, the general attitude of Muslims changed. "Imams usually did not come to the mission,” the priest explained, “because they thought, 'Who knows what the Fathers are up to there'. But now they have started to come and I continue to go to them. We show them that we are not there to fight them, but to live our faith and propose it to anyone who wants to hear it. Seeing the attitude of their leaders towards us, Muslim believers understood that mistrust is unreasonable."

This does not mean that all the problems have been solved. "Even today if a Muslim, especially women and minors, wants to convert to Christianity, their parents will oppose it. Adults may do it, but they are rejected by their family and must change city to avoid being killed. Yet, such difficulties aside, we see that the Church is growing, and we are waiting for the first local vocation as a fulfilment of this process.”

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