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Sierra Leone Islamic preacher reprimanded for organizing religious debate

  • Sheikh Abbass Sesay

By Prince Musa

A Kenema-based Islamic preacher was reprimanded recentlly on allegation of promoting religious division.

Sheikh Abass Sesay angered the Christian community in the eastern Sierra Leonean district with his annual religious crusade which some pastors say portray their faith in a bad light and have warned that unless action is taken could ignite religious confrontation.

A group of pastors lodged a complaint with the Provincial Security Committee (PROSEC) which summoned the preacher to a hearing. They say the crusade which takes the form of a debate is organized such that the Sheikh raises issues that ridicule Christianity. Others alleged that some of his audience appeared to have been chosen to pretend to be Christians and are asked to interpret certain aspects of their faith which they can’t.

One of the concerned pastors, Rev. Francis Kamanda, Vice President of Kenema Council of Pentecostal Churches, said the crusade had become an issue to Christians and was generating tension between followers of the two religious groups. According to him, the last debate was held on the topic: ‘The Deity of Jesus.’

“We realized that during the debate there was a lot of tension that could cause problem for the district,” he told Politico in a telephone interview on Sunday.

“We have never seen it happen in Kenema or even Sierra Leone,” he added.

Kamanda earlier told the PROSEC hearing that as religious people they were charged with the responsibility to preach and unify people and not to incite them against one another.

The PROSEC, chaired by the Resident Minister, offered the various sides the opportunity to express their views on the issue at the hearing last week.

Sesay was ordered to retract his statement and apologize to the people of Kenema and in particular Christians, which he did.

But in a telephone conversation with Politico, the preacher defended his position, saying the story portrayed at the hearing was wrong. He said his preaching was in fact geared towards strengthening religious tolerance as he basically touches on issues captured in the Bible about Islam, noting that he was motivated to reference the two holy books because some Muslims don’t believe in the Bible, yet no one can be a true Muslim without believing the Bible as true words of God.

“They are saying that the Bible is not a true book. So I am telling them that the bible is a book from God. I can never preach to condemn the Bible,” he said.

“The youths listen to me and they know I am a peaceful person…I don’t think there is any constitution that forbids me from reading the Bible.”

Sheikh Sesay said he has been doing the crusade as an open lecture all over the country for the last 17 years and that there was never a point when it caused tension.

“I do not have interest on whether Jesus Christ is God or not. That’s not my concern. That’s the belief of the Christians and I respect that. My mission is to tell the people what the Bible says about Islam. The five pillars of Islam is mentioned in the Bible, as is ablution, the call to prayer, spiritual cleansing, and removal of the shoe before entering the mosque…”

Sesay’s last crusade, which he said attracted over 5000 youths, saw him debated with a Freetown-based pastor, Francis Tucker, who is himself a regular organizer of religious debate.

Pastor Francis Tucker, who we learnt is set to hold a similar debate in Jui later this month, could not be reached for comments.

The incident has also gotten the local chapter of the Inter- Religious Council (IRC) thinking about regulating the organization of crusades, according to Alhaji Sheku Kamara, chairman of the IRC Kenema,

He told the PREOSEC hearing that they were unaware of the crusade organized by Sesay.

Any preacher who wanted to organise such a religious gathering might have to pass through the council for guidance, he said.

The hearing was presided over by the Resident East, Kamoh Kabba, who had strong words of caution for preachers. He said Sierra Leone was considered as one of the most peaceful countries in the world partly due to its culture of religious tolerance, and that as a government they wouldn’t allow anyone to jeopardize that.

"We will not allow any religious debate or argument that will bring religious conflict in this country as Sierra Leone has been recognized for its religious tolerance," Kabba said, citing unrests in countries like Nigeria and other parts of the world as illustrations of what religious antagonism can cause.

Statistics about the composition of the local population based on religious identity wasn’t immediately available. But by the accounts of religious authorities, there is almost equal population of followers of the two faiths in the district.

Regardless of their faith, inhabitants of Kenema have lived in harmony for decades. They inter marriage and together observer religious holidays of either side.

A most recent collaboration between the two faiths was seen during the campaign against the controversial abortion law. Through the Inter Religious Council, leaders of the two faiths came together to preach against the bill which was later thrown out of parliament.

Muslim and Christian leaders also collaborated in the fight against Ebola through social mobilization campaigns jointly conducted under the auspices of the NGO Focus 1000.

(C) Politico 2017a