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The Correspondent of RECOWACERAO NEWS AGENCY, RECONA has reported that a Catholic Priest is fearing for the Future of The Gambia’s Christian Population amid “subtle” Persecution. Christians in The Gambia who represent a tiny percentage of the country’s population are experiencing “subtle” persecution, a Catholic Priest ministering in the West African country has said.

The Director of the Pastoral Centre of the Catholic Diocese of Banjul in The Gambia, Fr. Peter Stephen Lopez, has observed the emergence of Imams, who he says are bent on creating a rift between Christians and Muslims in a country that is vastly Muslim.

In an interview with ACI Africa made privy to RECOWACERAO NEWS AGENCY, RECONA, Fr. Lopez said, “The Gambia has enjoyed religious freedom until now. Christians have always lived in great friendship with their Muslim brothers and sisters. We have had intermarriages between Christians and Muslims and attended each other’s events in mosques and churches.  But these days, we hear people talking about how they fail to get jobs just because they bear Christian names.”

“A certain crop of Imams coming from the Arab countries, and who don’t know the history of religious tolerance in The Gambia are bringing with them extremist teachings. They speak openly on the radio, cautioning Muslims against mingling with Christians. They warn Muslims against stepping in Christian houses, eating food prepared by Christians or attending Church events,” he added during the Tuesday, April 16 interview. Fr. Lopez expressed fear that if not nipped in the bud, the emerging religious extremism in The Gambia could “wipe away” Christianity in Africa’s tiniest country.

The Gambia is the smallest country in mainland Africa with a population of just about 2.2 million people. Christians are about 4.2 percent of The Gambia’s population, which is approximately 95 percent Muslim. Fr. Lopez estimates that over 90 percent of The Gambia’s Christian population are Catholic. The Catholic Priest fears that the government of The Gambia is bent on making the country an Islamic State.

“Declarations have already been made that The Gambia is an Islamic State,” he says, alluding to the 2015 declaration of the country’s former president, Yahya Jammeh, who declared The Gambia an Islamic State, saying he wanted to further distance the West African country from its colonial past.

In the April 16 interview with ACI Africa, made available to RECOWACERAO NEWS AGENCY, RECONA, Fr. Lopez expressed concern that in the forthcoming Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit in The Gambia, the Islamization agenda may be revisited. The member of the Clergy of Banjul Diocese, who serves as the Director of Radio Veritas criticized media regulators in The Gambia for allowing a section of Imams to incite religious-based animosity live on radio, saying the body that is supposed to regulate radio content in the country “is compromised.”

He further questioned the mushrooming of mosques all over the country, saying, “A lot of money is coming from Saudi Arabia and is being used to construct mosques. And now we have mosques littered everywhere. The rate at which mosques are being constructed in The Gambia is very alarming. Yet not a penny from these funds is being used to construct chapels.”

This is not the first time that reports have emerged about the growing discrimination against Christians in The Gambia. Before Ramadan in 2021, the Gambian government passed a bill that allowed female civil servants to leave work early during the holy month. This, the government argued, was to allow the women to prepare meals for their families with which to break their fast in the evenings. Coming just after the end of Lent, the move was criticized by Christians in The Gambia, who questioned why they were not allowed a break from work during Lent.

Members of the Christian Council of the Gambia (CCG), composed of the Catholic, Anglican, and Methodist Churches have, in the past, demanded that in the preamble of The Gambia’s future Constitution, the words “secular state” be specified to steer off the concerns about making the country an Islamic State. According to Fr. Lopez, the Catholic Church in The Gambia is held in high esteem owing to its role in the development of the country.

“Although we are a minority, Catholics in The Gambia are very much respected because of the mark that early missionaries left in the country. They were very instrumental in the health and education sectors, building facilities that are used by Catholics and non-Catholics alike,” Fr. Lopez said. He added that Catholic development and humanitarian agencies working in The Gambia do not discriminate against locals based on religion.

The Gambia has only one Diocese, Banjul, that serves the entire country. Overseeing the Diocese is Bishop Gabriel Mendy. The 57-year-old Gambian member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit under the protection of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Spiritans/Holy Ghost Fathers) has been at the helm of the Diocese since February 2018. Statistics provided by Fr. Lopez indicate that The Gambia has 22 indigenous Catholic Priests who serve the Diocese of Banjul’s 22 Parishes, most of them remote. Assisting Banjul’s Priests are Missionary Priests from neighboring countries, especially Nigeria. Priests in The Gambia are supported by the country’s 45 Catechists. Of these, 20 are full-time and are paid by the Diocese while the rest volunteer to help the Church on a part-time basis.

The role of Catechists in the Diocese of Banjul dates back to the country’s first evangelization, Fr. Lopez says. “The Catechists helped the early missionaries with translation. It is them who evangelized in hard-to-reach remote places. Their role is still vital as they journey with some of our priests that are not Gambians,” he says. Apart from the extremist threat, the Catholic Church in The Gambia faces the challenge of evangelism.

“We are losing our Catholics to evangelical churches that come, preaching the gospel of prosperity. This way, they appear very attractive to our members. They are using all means to lure Catholics, including holding loud crusades in marketplaces,” Fr. Lopez told our Correspondent.

All the challenges notwithstanding, the Catholic Church in The Gambia has remained resilient, and shows immense growth potential, he said. Fr. Lopez added, “We just celebrated Easter and received many converts through the Sacrament of Baptism. We still have full churches. We are still operating in a safe space. The future for the Catholic Church in The Gambia is bright.”