Muslim leaders and Christian volunteers host religious dialogues in Saharawi camps
By: Timothy Kustusch
In the Saharawi refugee camps outside of Tindouf, Algeria, Muslim and Christian leaders gather together once a year to peacefully discuss their faiths. First arranged in 2006 by volunteers coordinated by Christ the Rock Church in Menasha, Wisconsin, the inter-religious roundtables are triumphantly entering their fourth year.
Christ the Rock first began working with the residents of the Saharawi camps in 1999. The program was originally dedicated to providing host families in the U.S. for Saharawi children, so that the youth could escape the scorching hot Saharan sun during the summer months.
Over the years, the program has evolved and is now principally dedicated to running an English learning centre in the camp of Smara. Volunteers come from over a dozen states in the U.S. to teach English, offer sports instruction, and share life with the people in the camps.
Outside of the English school, however, Christ the Rock participants continue to develop parallel programs to build bridges between people in the United States and Saharawis forced to live in the arid Saharan Desert.
“We are open to any new ideas,” says Janet, the program’s founder and director. “We have just come here to serve the Saharawi people. They take the lead, and we just follow.”
One of the group’s most innovative and successful projects has been a series of inter-religious seminars between leaders of the Muslim and Christian faiths. The roundtables take place in the camps, which are entirely inhabited by Sunni Muslims, and were originally conceived after Muslim prayer leaders approached Christ the Rock volunteers with a variety of questions concerning Christianity.
“We were completely taken off-guard,” says Janet. “The Imam from Tindouf and the head Saharawi Imam came to us and suggested we arrange these dialogues to learn more about each other’s religions.
“The Saharawis were disillusioned with other Muslim countries, who have not come to their aid, so it was very exciting to have them come to us seeking dialogue.”
Participants to the first seminar were very closely considered. To avoid potential tension, only a few political leaders from the Polisario Front (the independence movement of the Saharawi people), local religious leaders, and volunteers from Christ the Rock were invited.
“While a few of the attendees at the inaugural session did attempt to debate, the proceedings were for the most part peaceful and cordial,” assures the program’s founder.
The second seminar was even more in-depth, and the principle Muslim religious leader from Algeria attended. The session also took on a more open and conversational tone. By the third meeting, participation even extended to an Algerian politician who had previously authored a book condemning Christianity and had written a law making activities aimed at converting Muslims in Algeria a criminal offense.
“It was incredible,” recalls the Christ the Rock program’s director. “This man who had been vehemently opposed to Christianity came up to me and said he had been moved by what he had heard about our faith [during the seminar].”
Topics for the three seminars, which are chosen by Saharawi prayer leaders, have included: “Who is Christ?”, “Who is Mohamed?”, and “Peace.” During each session, five presenters offer their views on the chosen topic. Local Muslim leaders attend the sessions, as well as Christian leaders who have had previous exposure to Islam.
“I think my proudest moment was when the Saharawi Muslim prayer leader approached me and said, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this’,” recounts Janet. “Here in the Saharawi refugee camps we’ve successfully managed to host programs that have failed in the United States. It’s incredibly powerful.”
For its 2009 seminar, Christ the Rock is opening the doors to religious leaders from a number of other countries, including South Africa, Spain, and France. Local Saharawi Muslim leaders and Christ the Rock volunteers hope to continue building cultural and religious bridges in the North African region.
“We didn’t come here to convert anyone,” assures Janet. “We’re trying to open up conversation so we can better love our fellow man.”