Editor’s note: This is the first of several dispatches on the Muslim-Baptist mission trip to Tanzania.
Three Oklahomans – two Baptists and a Muslim – left behind that state’s infectious fear of Islam to combat the infectious disease of malaria in Tanzania, demonstrating that different faiths can work together to meet human needs.
Orhan Osman, executive director of the Institute of Interfaith Dialog of Oklahoma; Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists; and T. Thomas, coordinator of Oklahoma Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, continued their interfaith dialogue and action featured in the hour-long documentary “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims,” that aired on ABC-TV stations across the United States earlier this year.
In a week-long trip to east Africa, they distributed 2,500 mosquito-repellent nets in five locations around Tanzania’s largest city of Dar es Salaam.
Their trip took place a month after Oklahomans passed an amendment to the state’s constitution by more than 70 percent of the vote to forbid state courts from using Sharia or Islamic law. Conservative Christians saw the measure as a check against a perceived threat of Muslim domination in the United States. Religious liberty advocates saw the amendment as a misleading, fear-based and hateful action toward Islam.
Asked why a Muslim would want to organize a mission trip with Baptists, Osman told EthicsDaily.com, “When Jesus, peace be upon him, said ‘Love your neighbor,’ he didn’t say ‘Love your neighbor if he is Christian.’ … [T]he Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, didn’t say ‘Help your neighbor if he is Muslim.’ … Both our faiths are teaching us to come together to help the others.”
“Malaria doesn’t have a religion,” said Osman. “When malaria comes, it comes to everyone.”
Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease that affects some 250 million people and kills up to 3 million people annually, most of whom are children in sub-Saharan Africa.
Tanzania’s newspaper, The Citizens, said that malaria is the “leading cause of death in children who survive the neonatal period.”
At a school for the disabled in Kwa Matias, more than 30 miles from Dar es Salaam, nets were distributed to children with names representing both Christian and Muslim faiths – such as Emmanuel and Saddam Hussein.
Albertina Saki, the local head of the Group of Parents with Handicapped Children in Tanzania, told EthicsDaily.com that the disabled included orphans, those with mental and physical handicaps, and children living in extremely difficult conditions. Two albino children were also present at the school.
Standing under a mango tree at another distribution location, Thomas, who is also the executive director of HISNets, introduced Osman to elderly men and women.
“Orhan is a Muslim. I am Christian. Together we bring you a gift,” he said. “Our prayer – as Muslim and Christian – is that you will sleep healthy.”
Osman said, “Muslims and Christians in Oklahoma have a wonderful relationship and this is one example… We work together.”
At a third distribution site, Osman told several hundred villagers, “I’m proud of being involved with Christians.”
Effective for four to six years, the distributed mosquito-repellent nets cost $6 per net at wholesale and $10 per net at retail, an inexpensive amount from an American perspective but a sizable expense for the average Tanzanian, who lives on $1,400 annually.
Muslim and Baptist donors underwrote the costs of the nets.
The Feza Schools, an elite boarding school system that educates boys and girls separately, sponsored the in-country expenses of the Muslim-Baptist mission trip.
Feza schools are part of an international, Turkish-backed education movement based on the teachings of the Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen.
Leaders and teachers at the Feza Secondary and High School arranged the net distribution with a commitment that the nets be shared with both Christians and Muslims. At each location, some women wore Islamic head scarves and some had traditional head covers suggesting they were Christians. At one village, an imam had organized the distribution at his mosque. At another site, a female government official, who was baptized a Roman Catholic, was involved in the arrangements.
According to the CIA World FactBook, Tanzania’s population is 30 percent Christian, 35 percent Muslim and 35 percent indigenous beliefs.
However, The Citizen notes that the “national census…has not asked for religious affiliation since 1967 as the religious balance is seen as a sensitive topic. Thus all figures on religious statistics for Tanzania are at best educated guesswork and differ widely on the question whether there are more Christians or Muslims. Most assume that the share of traditionalists has dwindled.”
The diverse Christian population includes Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Pentecostals and Baptists. The Muslim population is between 80 percent to 90 percent Sunni, with evidence of Shi’a Islam.
The CIA estimates that Tanzania, twice the size of California, has a population of 41.9 million.
Forty-three percent of Tanzanians are 14 years old or younger. The nation is ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the world’s nations in terms of per-capita income.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.