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Senegal: Living The Encounter

Father Jacques Seck continues his lifelong vocation – promoting understanding between Christians and Moslems. As for the extremists, he says “Let no one try to divide us”.

Despite his 83 years, he walks steadily through the streets of Dakar. People of all ages greet him as he passes with smiles and affection. With his long white tunic and his traditional black and white Senegalese cap on his head, Father Jacques is one of the people most respected by Senegalese Christians and Moslems.

For more than fifty years he has acted as a reliable channel of communications and dialogue between the two religions and he is often described as a Moslem priest or a Christian imam.

We met him at the cathedral of Our Lady of Victories in Dakar, a church where he was parish priest for many years. It is a large cruciform building. At its centre is the altar where, during his homilies, he often recited the Koran which he knows by heart in the original Arabic, much to the surprise of the faithful. “It was to live my faith better that I chose to study the Koran and encouraged others to do the same”, he tells us, “as a Christian I must love everyone and we cannot love those we do not know”.

This same conviction moved him to send one of his nephews, a Moslem, to go to school in Morocco. “I brought him to Dakar and sent him to Morocco saying: ‘There you will learn both the language and the culture’”. He adds, “he completed his studies and returned to Senegal after some years. He then became a professor in the Catholic Institute of Hann Maristes, in the outskirts of the capital where I myself taught until a few years ago”. “If he had gone to the usual school”, he continues, “he would never have learned the language but would have simply recited formulas. This is an example of how we want our country to be”.

Speaking of his own family, he says “I was born in a village, in a Christian family of the Serer ethnic group. I was brought up a Catholic but also in the animist traditions and I may say that, until I was fifteen, I was an animist. I had never thought of becoming a priest. As a matter of fact, I began my career as a primary school teacher. As I grew older, I realised that my true calling was to the Church. I entered the seminary when I was 26 and I was ordained priest in 1969”.

“I began to work in a small community”, Father Jacques continues, “and I was parish priest for 12 years. However, I felt I ought to pursue my studies further. Then, in 1973 I went to Rome for Biblical and Islamic studies at the Gregorian. After I finished my studies I went to live in Tunisia where I continued to study the Koran and Arabic”.

“I must also add that previously, immediately after independence in 1960, the President of the time Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first President of Senegal, who was a Christian, decided to send a group of priests, myself among them, to the Arabic world precisely to promote dialogue and mutual understanding. We cannot love what we do not understand and he acted very wisely in ensuring that there were scholars and priests who knew the sacred Moslem texts. We went to Morocco and to Saudi Arabia where I met many Arab Moslems and absorbed Islamic culture and theology. This proved very useful to me when I returned to Senegal. I myself have taught the Koran; I once substituted a Moslem professor who had never studied the Koran”.

In Senegal, coexistence has been consolidated for decades to such an extent that many people of all walks of life speak of ‘inter-religious dialogue of life’, in which Moslems and Christians take part in the main celebrations of both communities such as Easter and the Feast of the Sacrifice. Neither is it uncommon that there are people of both faiths in the same family unit.

Father Jacques states, “My father followed traditional African religion until he was almost eighty when he converted to Islam, the religion of my elder sister who had married an imam. There was also a close relative of Cardinal Hyacinthe Thiandoum, the first African bishop of Dakar, who was the imam in his village of Popenguine, and he was there in the front row when the cardinal was consecrated bishop, with all his family!”.

When we asked where this tolerance came from, Father Jacques said, “As a Christian, Jesus is my saviour and he practiced tolerance and love for all. This vision is also respected by Senegalese Moslems, following the Prophet Mohammed. The reason for this mutual respect is also cultural. Our African patrimony is traditionally focused on the common vision, common peace in villages, cities and in the whole country of Senegal. As I mentioned, in many families there are people of different faiths so it would not be very practical not to tolerate each other”.

Recent years have increasingly witnessed forms of Islamic extremism. The terrorist attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. “Things are happening that would not even have been imagined some years ago. Moslems who murder with their bombs or abduct children are not true Moslems, just as fanatical Christians are not true Christians, ‘no compulsion in religious matters’, as the Koran also says”, Fr. Jacques tells us.

In his view, the best response to intolerance is always a personal commitment. “In this line, together with a group of Moslem faithful, I used to go and visit different regions of the country, as a concrete example of living together”. “Let no one try to divide us!”, he again repeats, “we must respect each other as Senegalese because being one family comes before Christianity and Islam – we do not wish to allow religious differences to stop us cultivating the same fields!”.