Posted by: lrrp | October 3, 2005

Dialogue between Christians and Muslims: how a better understanding of history can help by Luigi Clerici

PRESENT ANIMOSITY? Ten years ago, the author wrote a pamphlet about the so-called “Mombasa Martyrs” of the year 1631.1 They were unfortunately at one time known only to historians, but at long last seem now to receive a well-deserved publicity.
At the time of writing, I had expressed the wish that the pamphlet be translated into Swahili for wider dissemination at the Coast, to acquaint Christians as well as Muslims with the facts of that human and religious tragedy. It had a conclusion which included an appeal to work energetically on both sides for the liquidation of religious animosities. As the recent Likoni massacres have horribly shown, there are enough economic, tribal and political factors at work to make peace at the Coast a precarious achievement. Mature religious Muslims as well as Christians should work hard at overcoming repressed animosity and hatred of any kind. The last page of the pamphlet contained a prayer in the style of Pope John Paul’s prayers on the occasions of his meetings with Islamic leaders. The prayer addressed the God of Mohammed as well as of Jesus, asking Him to bless all endeavours to produce in Christians as well as Muslims the sound fruits of religious peace, mutual understanding, appreciation, goodwill and civil collaboration. It also asked for forgiveness of past misdeeds by a seemingly Catholic occupying power which left Mombasa decorated with a colonial bastion paradoxically carrying the most sweet name of Jesus.
The Mombasa clergy was of course consulted on the appropriateness of such a publication of the almost totally forgotten tragedy of 1631. The following is an excerpt of the reply by the Mombasa spokesman:
We Catholics living here at the Coast are not keen on this idea. Such a publication would in our view do more harm than good, adding fuel to the very real animosity towards Christianity here. ‘Mombasa is becoming more Muslim every day’, an acquaintance said the other day. Our Catholic schools are now up to 80 percent filled with Muslim pupils. When a Coast historian published an article on the ‘Mombasa massacre’ , it led to an outbreak of verbal animosity from many Muslim readers. Knowing the local atmosphere, your suggestion, I am afraid, is a dream far removed from reality.
WHAT SHOULD BE DONE? This advice appears to say: “Sweep such controversial matters under the carpet!” But historical facts, especially embarrassing ones, have the stubborn habit of not going away. For both parties this is an unworthy state of affairs, even if we admit that some members of the public can never be converted to a rational and dispassionate attitude to past tragedies. The right attitude to past tragedies has been shown on a number of occasions by the Vatican II2-converted church leadership: Paul VI embracing Patriarch Athenagoras on the concluding day of the Council; John Paul II meeting world religious leaders at Assisi and praying with them; the recent self-accusation by the same pope of the centuries-old persecution of our Jewish brethren by Catholic Church authorities, etc. Whatever one may think of the value of such apologies for the unethical behaviour of past generations, they are encouraging signs as well as stimulations towards personal conversion of ingrained prejudices. Such examples show us walking in the footsteps of the compassionate Christ.
To return to Mombasa: Why should the influx of Muslim students into Catholic educational institutions be a matter to deplore? Is it not a providential challenge to prove at least to the open-minded students and their well-intentioned parents (who don’t seem to fear any kind of proselytism) how seriously the Mombasa Catholic Church is taking the spirit and letter of Vatican II? According to a Vatican directive, Catholics should open the doors of their educational institutions to Muslim imams in order to give students solid, unbiased Islamic formation. In doing this, we would only be giving Muslims the same religious freedom we are asking for Christian students in nations and regions where Christians are the minority! Objective and dispassionate study of even highly embarrassing facts of history provides a chance for leading religious minds¾Christian and Muslim alike¾away from emotional stereotyping of the partner and of destroying common ‘enemy images.’ of the opponent. Any psychologist would recommend such study as a means to lead rational minds away from ever-present temptations to religious prejudice, animosity or fanaticism.
THE 1631 TRAGEDY IN BRIEF From the time of Henry the Navigator in the middle of the fifteenth century, the deeply religious Portuguese nation was crusading against the Muslim usurpers of Constantinople and the holy lands. Christian Portugal itself had been under Muslim occupation and domination for over six centuries. They were searching for a sea route southwards in order to fall upon the rear of their hated oriental enemy. They also wished, understandably, to finance this costly enterprise by looking for a trade route to the spices of India which had brought such fabulous wealth to the Arab nations. When, in 1498, Vasco da Gama finally succeeded in rounding the Cape, he found a friendly welcome and an experienced pilot only from the Sultan’s family in Malindi.
The sails of da Gama’s vessel, as well as those of all his countrymen thereafter, bore the cross of the crusader, and 90 percent of all the Portuguese ships were “baptised” with the names of angels or saints or Christian mysteries: such was their self-confidence in the righteousness of their Holy War against the enemies of Christ. But their ruthless behaviour after a customary deeply religious sending off (after fasting and night vigils and clerical processions to implore victory and safe return to Lisbon) was anything but Christian. Wholesale slaughter of women and children in hostile African and Indian harbours was no exception.
It is not for our “enlightened” twentieth century¾undoubtedly the bloodiest in human history¾to sit in judgement on the atrocities committed by Christians of bygone ages! But such was the cause of Mombasa’s tragedy: for over one century the Western intruders were welcomed in a friendly manner on the East Coast of Africa only by the ruling family of Malindi. So with the building of Fort Jesus in 1592 against the rising menace of the Dutch and English, the Portuguese replaced the ever-hostile Mombasa government by moving in the friendly Malindi ruler. But by an inexplicable intrigue, he and his wife were murdered and their salted heads displayed on pikes in Goa, to the utter disgust of the Portuguese historian, Bocarro, present at this abominably unjust spectacle. Their surviving seven-year old son, Yussuf bin Hassan, was given into the care of the Augustinian priests who shipped him to Goa for military and Christian upbringing. The Viceroy in person gave him his own baptismal name, Jeronimo, and later a Christian Goan wife.
After their marriage, he returned with his wife in great pomp ‘as a second Constantine’ to his Muslim subjects in Mombasa. When, after some time, he found out about the treacherous manner of his parents’ murder, he suddenly rebelled against the commander of Fort Jesus who used to insult him in front of his subjects as “a mere black man.” In a surprise coup, he killed all the 150 Portuguese in the town, half of them children below the age of twelve, including his own uncle Antonio of Malindi. Another 150 black Christians were given the option of death or a return to the Muslim faith of their ancestors: they chose martyrdom. In addition, 400 were shipped away by Yussuf and sold to Hadramaut and Arabia as slaves because they refused to return to Islam. Yussuf’s war cry is reported to have been: “Now we have our own Sheria again!”. He turned to piracy, and lost his life some years later in a battle in the Red Sea.
Recently, there were some rumours of a possible request for beatification or canonization of those martyrs.1 Strangely, the Augustinians at that time requested the Congregation of Rites in Rome to canonize their own three confreres plus the 15
0 Portuguese, but there was no request for the honour of the altar for their black Christians, not even for Antonio of Malindi, the only one of the local Christian martyrs whose name has been transmitted. The authorities will have to judge the complex background of these martyrdoms. In my view, these Africans would surely deserve to be made known for their fidelity to their newly-found Christian faith. Indirectly, this would also be a proof of the solidity of the methods of evangelisation of those Portuguese Augustinian missionaries, under a very adverse and compromising colonial situation.
LESSONS FOR TODAY’S ENCOUNTER BETWEEN MUSLIMS AND CHRISTIANS IN KENYA The recent Nairobi bomb tragedy showed an extraordinary outpouring of human solidarity and helpfulness beyond any racial or religious diversity. Understandably, when the perpetrators of the violence became known, there was rightly a vigorous self-protestation by various Muslim organizations and authorities of the “well-known peacefulness of Kenyan Muslims.” However, the unfortunate coincidental burning of Christian churches in Garissa on the same morning (on account of the boiling-over of simmering protest against so-called blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad by an American evangelist in Nakuru) was a timely reminder that oversimplification and generalization about Muslim-Christian hostility in Kenya are totally out of place. The daily press helped to illustrate with photographs how, for instance, Archbishop Ndingi was presented with copies of the Holy Koran by the Muslim Council of Kenya. Such mutual friendly gestures assured even uninformed or suspicious minds, that a national catastrophe like the anti-American bomb blast (meant by totally misled fanatical jihad-liberation fighters as a “Holy War against an intruding so-called ‘Christian’ world power”) could bring out in telling symbolic gestures what the real state of Muslim-Catholic interreligious dialogue is meant to be. But such symbolic gestures have to be followed up by a general and persistent building up of mutual trust and good human relationships between our two faiths, in order to overcome the deplorable state (if it should still persist) of mutual apprehension documented by the letter from the Mombasa clergy quoted above. Let us use every means at our disposal, including our Catholic educational institutions at the Coast, to educate Christians and Muslims alike in tolerance and goodwill for one another. In our schools, we will thus build a better Kenyan nation, a Kenya which is above the ethnic, denominational or religious interest of any particular group!
Notes 1. See Clerici, Luigi: ” Should the 300 martyrs and the 400 confessors of the 1631 Mombasa rising against the Portuguese be canonized? Pros and cons.” In: African Christian Studies: journal of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa), Vol. 10, no. 3 (1994), pp. 60-66.
2. The Second Vatican Council was held in Rome from 1962-1965. It introduced many reforms into the Catholic Church and represented a major shift in thinking on the part of the Church hierarchy.
For further readingThe handiest presentation (albeit outdated in some details) of the Mombasa affair is still to be found in Strandes, Justus: “The rising in Mombasa.” In: The Portuguese period in East Africa, Ch. 14. pp. 165-177. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1961. (Often reprinted). The most recent scientific presentation is Freeman-Grenville, G.S.P.: The Mombasa rising against the Portuguese, 1631. From sworn evidence. Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, London, 1980. Introduction pp. xxi-lvii. Lamentable documentation of the never-ending and inconsequential Royal Inquests into colonial maladministration, corruption, atrocities and savage disdain of fundamental rights of the local population in Axelson, Eric: Portuguese in S.E. Africa 1600 – 1700. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1960. passim. – Yussuf’s own godfather, Viceroy Jeronimo Azevedo, ended his life ignominiously in a Lisbon prison, incarcerated for maladministration.

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