Oluwole A. Abiola
Council of African and Afro-Caribbean Churches, UK
delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998
Listening to all that has been said this morning, I don’t know what more I have to say. All I can say is that the African churches in Europe are in a different class. They are not a threat to anybody, for two reasons. First, we are not financially or economically powerful. Second, we depend on the good will of all of our Christian brothers and sisters in allowing us to use their premises for our worship and spiritual activities, although actually at a very exorbitant rental price. When you are powerless, you are not a threat, because most of the churches are not only spiritual, they are powerful, and they are able to do things their own way, by themselves.
I will just let you know that our churches are called churches in Europe, but in Africa, they are called a new religious movement, which actually leaves a question as to the originality of our churches. African churches, or what you call the African independent churches, developed in Africa because of the inadequacy of the Christian religion, as presented to the Africans.
Africans believe in a God who is able to do all things, here and now, whereas the message that the Christians took to Africa, was, “Abide, bear with your suffering, your poverty, your everything, and what little you have, you give it to the church, you’ll get to heaven, as is your right.” We do not believe in that. The God that the Africans believe in is a God that can take care of every aspect of our life and living. That is why we have polytheists in Africa.
Well, it is a different story in Europe. Literally, I have been studying for the past thirty-six years. When we arrived in Britain, although we had been represented in Britain for over a century, there were not large numbers of members until 1948, when the new government had to go the Caribbean to bring in new workers. So, there was an influx of black people into Britain in large numbers. Added to that, are the students from the British Commonwealth.
Now, they found out that in Britain they are not welcome in the churches because of the color of their skin. I have had the same experience. I was in the Anglican communion, the Anglican Church started by my family in Nigeria. As an African minister, I attended an Anglican church on the first Sunday that I was in Britain, and I was advised not to come back again.
So, black people started their own churches in Britain, what you call the black religious churches. There are about one thousand churches in Britain, with very large congregations. But, back in Africa, our churches are called new religious movements. The first person to coin that particular word, was Rev. Dr. Turner, who I met in the early 1950s in Sierra Leone at Fourah Bay College. He was the first person that called the African independent churches a new religious movement.
We in Britain are lucky, possibly because the question of freedom of worship is more or less embedded in the law of the land, which gives everyone the right to worship in the religion to which they belong, as long as it does not infringe on the rights or freedoms of other people. The British government has never sought to interfere with freedom of worship. If there is any difficulty, the only thing they can do is to withdraw the charitable status of that organization. Of course when they do that, it is a financial burden on the organization.
What I will say exists in Britain is religious discrimination and intolerance. Although there is religious freedom, there are so many attitudes which don’t permit religious freedom to be fully exercised. This intolerance has, as its root cause, ignorance of other people’s religious beliefs and practices. For a long time, Britain has been a Christian country, though it is no longer so. In fact, I was told that in 1962, when I had to go and give a lecture at a Baptist College. I said, “Oh! You are no more a Christian country.” I was taking it for granted for you actually do not believe in the intensity of other religious existences.
When one of our churches applied to join the National British Council of Churches in the 1960s, we were turned down. The reason given was that they did not expect other Christian Churches to be represented in Britain, other than those which are already there, such as the Baptist, Methodist, and Anglican churches. For this reason, religious voices, or groups, are not recorded. You would expect an acceptance, which would go hand in hand with religious freedom. This means that this intolerance, which in a way makes them suspicious of all other people’s religious beliefs and practices, has always been of concern to all the new religious movements.
However, things are looking better now, with the existence of the Interfaith Network in Britain, which has brought together all the faith communities, including Christians and Jews, for mutual dialogue and understanding. In addition, the present pope, Pope John Paul II, has done a lot to foster religious freedom and understanding in his encouragement and actions, by bringing together all world faith leaders for an hour of prayer together in Assisi. That’s why the same pope, who in 1982 invited us to the Catholic cathedral—where all Christians came together for the first time in the history of Catholicism—said that there is an element of Christ in all Christian bodies. Therefore, all Christians are pilgrims. And, if you are pilgrims, why not join together, hand in hand?