Bibles desecrated by Muslim students in a Catholic school in Malawi
A rampage by Muslim student at a Catholic primary school occurred in early October after representatives of the Gideons Bible organization offered the school free copies of the New Testament. The attack was reported to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) by the local parish priest, Father Medrick M. Chimbwanya.
The school, in the traditional authority of Bwananyambi in the Diocese of Mangochi in the south of Malawi, is situated in an area where roughly 75% of the population is Muslim.
Although the school head had made it absolutely clear that no Bibles were to be given to the Muslim pupils and that no one was obliged to take a copy of the book, there was a subsequent uproar on the part of some Muslim youths, who tore up the Bibles, threw them while yelling at their teachers, and then threw the torn-up pages on the streets.
Some of the pupils, who live in a nearby Islamic hostel, denounced the Bible distribution to their religious leaders as an "insult to Islam" and claimed they had been forced to accept a Bible. As a result, in the days following the incident, Catholics had been fearful of violent attacks by Muslim groups, the priest told ACN.
In addition, in a subsequent report by the local daily, The Nation Newspaper, of which ACN has secured a copy, the events were falsely portrayed as though the copies of the New Testament had been distributed to the Muslim pupils as well.
No Christian witnesses were interviewed in the report and none of the Muslims interviewed were actual eyewitnesses of the events. It was also asserted in the report that it was the parents of the pupils who had torn up the books, and there were other similarly false statements and misrepresentations.
On the day after the incident, Muslim religious leaders came to the school, demanding an apology, Father Chimbwanya reported. One Muslim teacher, who had actually witnessed the events, was attacked with particular ferocity when he attempted to set the record straight.
A few days later, the religious leaders were called together again to speak with the students who had torn up the books and demand an apology from them. Sheikh Disi, the religious leader of the Muslims in the region, called upon all the students to respect the faith of their fellow men. However, Father Chimbwanya explained, the other Muslims had given the impression that they were “not very happy with him as he did not really show himself to be sympathetic.”
Father Chimbwanya went on to warn ACN that "the behavior of the youths has been an indicator of a danger in our midst. Normally, the Primary school youth in Malawi would not have the courage of tearing up any book in the presence of their teacher, let alone a Holy Book. My conclusion is that there must be some awful training given to these youths which, if left unchecked, means that we may have dangerous militants in Malawi in the near future.”
He added that there was a need to finally initiate a dialogue at grass roots level with representatives of Islam. Misunderstandings and incidents of this kind tended to "come and go," he said, yet so far this has never yet led to the establishment of an organized "round table" discussion with ordinary Muslims or made it possible to conduct such discussions not only at a high level but also at grass roots level.
"I expect that there will be opportunity for us religious leaders in the area to sit together to discuss on how we can work together in this area without clashes," the priest said.
Malawi is situated in southeast Africa and has some 14 million inhabitants, of whom 4 million are Catholics. Altogether, Christians of the various different denominations make up some 80% of the population, while Muslims account for almost 13%. However some regions of the country are predominantly Muslim.
The Diocese of Mangochi in the south of Malawi has 255 primary schools, 34 kindergartens, and 27 secondary schools, all of which are also attended by Muslims. Roughly 490,000 of the total population of over 1.5 million in the Diocese are Catholics. They are served by 59 diocesan priests.