By Mark Woods
The West African nation of Liberia is slowly recovering from its Ebola trauma. It was the hardest-hit among the nations affected, with more than 4,800 dead out of an estimated 10,666 infections. Sporadic cases have been reported since it was declared disease-free continue, but it’s more or less over.
Now, though, the country has to deal with a plague that might be just as deadly. The virus in this case is ideological and many fear that it could destabilise a country that has seen far too much conflict in recent decades.
Liberia suffered devastating civil wars in the 1990s and early 2000s in which as many as half a million people may have died. Elections in 2005 saw Liberians choose Harvard-educated economist Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as their President. The task of reconstruction has been huge, but the economy is recovering and corruption is down. Inequality remains high and the Sirleaf government is far from perfect, but Liberia’s success in dealing with Ebola, paradoxically, shows how far it has come.
The prospect of religious conflict is something this country hardly needs, but if its National Legislature fails to confront the problem there is every possibility of trouble ahead.
The issue has been brewing for the last three years. As part of the reconstruction process the government set up a Constitutional Review Committee (CRC), which met from 2012-15. In April this year it held a four-day conference at which 25 proposed amendments were passed and forwarded to the President and the National Legislature. Among them were a reduction in elected representatives’ terms, land reforms and inheritance rights for women (it also recommended that citizenship should continue to be restricted to people of black African descent).
Perhaps its most contentious recommendation, though, was that Liberia should become a Christian state.
This recommendation, with the rest, was sent to President Sirleaf. She made it clear that she was not in favour of the provision, saying: “The founders of the Republic did not put into the constitution a declaration of Christianity as the nation’s religion. The constitution has always allowed freedom of religion or worship. Seeking to prescribe one religion as a state official religion – to do so now would foment division among our people based on religious beliefs. Liberians have lived together and have worked together willingly in harmony.” Sirleaf also said she could not support what she called “continuous race based discrimination” in the constitution.
Liberia’s religious make-up is mainly Christian – 85.5 per cent, according to the 2008 census – with Muslims at 12.2 per cent and most of the rest traditional indigenous religions. For many Christians, the issue is simple: Liberia is mainly Christians so it should be a Christian country. One clergyman who attended the CRC conference in April, David Jallah, told The Anadolu Agency afterwards: “The word ‘secular’ means ‘no God,’ but the politicians have played with this word to give the impression that secularism means the inclusion of all religions, which is false according to the dictionary definition.”
He said that secularism had brought a “curse” on the country and that most Liberians wanted it to be a Christian nation.
It is not the first time the issue has been raised. In 2013 the Liberian Churches collected 7,500 signatures for a petition to parliament calling for it to be a Christian state.
This time, however – and in spite of opposition from Sirleaf and other senior government figures – the National Legislature will have to vote whether to put it to a referendum. If it does, it is likely to pass.
The move is being promoted by a clergy-led group, the Liberia Restoration to Christian Heritage Committee, which gathered 700,000 signatures in its support. However, the Liberia Council of Churches reacted much more cautiously to the CRC proposals, establishing a working party to consider the implications of the proposition. Its chair is the former President of the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary Rev Dr Arnold Hill. A statement from the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention signed by its President Olu Menjay has already expressed strong opposition to the move, saying that Liberian Baptists have “no room for sectarian arrogance within the country’s diverse Christian persuasions and in a progressively more pluralistic world where Liberia is for all persons regardless of faith persuasion or affiliation”.
It was also denounced by the general assembly of the National Muslim Students Association of Liberia. which warned, “In the event that Christian extremists impose themselves on the Constitution [of Liberia], our last resort would be to secede territories that were predominantly Muslim before the creation of the so-called Christian principled state.”
It’s probably fair to say that most of those who are most strongly in favour of Liberia being a Christian state are not anti-Muslim but pro-Christian. Neither does it appear that anyone has really worked out what being an officially ‘Christian nation’ actually means in legislative terms. It is clear, however, that if the National Legislature overrides the wishes of the President and puts this to a vote, the likelihood is that it will pass. The danger is then that there will be a two-tier society in which some are more Liberian than others.
This is a fear echoed by London-based Liberian academic, activist and author Dr Robtel Neajai Pailey, who told Christian Today: “I fear for this outcome because it will undoubtedly sow the seeds of division in a country that is already very fractured.”
The loose reference to Christianity in the 1847 constitution to which campaigners appeal today “does not reflect the diversity of our 21st century reality, in which Liberians both home and abroad represent different faith traditions, including indigenous beliefs”, she said.
Pailey added: “Besides, we need to focus on more important priorities, like improving the lives of the 64 per cent of Liberians who live in abject poverty. After all, poverty knows no religion. Given that political stalwarts such as Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Governance Commission Chairman Dr. Amos Sawyer have publicly rejected the proposition to declare Liberia a Christian state, I can only hope that grassroots public education campaigns will avert a possible ‘yes’ vote.”
Liberia faces so many challenges that it’s hard to see the campaign for it to become a legally Christian nation as anything other than a dangerous distraction. There is some way to go before the terms of the referendum are decided. Many will be hoping and praying fervently that unity prevails.