Police in mostly Muslim Senegal broke up a protest outside the capital Dakar’s cathedral on Wednesday after Catholics accused the country’s president of making disparaging comments about Jesus.
The dispute between President Abdoulaye Wade and Senegal’s small but influential Catholic community is the latest twist in a growing controversy over Wade’s plan for a huge monument overlooking Dakar that depicts the “African renaissance”.
Imams this month attacked the statue of a giant family group as un-Islamic for presenting the human form as an object of worship — a criticism Wade sought to deflect this week by arguing that Christians prayed to a “man called Jesus Christ”.
“We were shaken and humiliated by the comparison which the head of state made between the monument to African renaissance and the representations found in our churches,” Theodore Adrien Sarr told a congregation in the cathedral. “It is scandalous and unacceptable that the divinity of Jesus is jeered and questioned by the highest authority of state,” he added.
Witnesses said security forces moved in quickly to break up an attempt by several hundred Christians to protest in the street outside the cathedral, a short walk from Wade’s presidential palace in central Dakar. Around 90 per cent of Senegalese are Muslim but the West African country has long nurtured a tradition of religious tolerance, notably to Christians who make up around six percent of the population.
Wade’s nearly-completed monument, a 50-metre bronze statue of a man, woman and a child, is perched on a hill looking out over the Atlantic and is meant to symbolise Africa’s liberation from “centuries of ignorance, intolerance and racism”. Once finished in early 2010, the monument will be taller than New York’s Statue of Liberty and Wade hopes it will draw in tourists and revenue.
The $27m (Sh2 billion) North Korean-built statue has been criticised as a waste of money. Senegal has a long history of tolerance between majority Muslims and the influential Christian community, who make up some six per cent of the population.
But the BBC’s Tidiane Sy in Dakar says there have been recent warnings that this could be at risk. Three respected groups have called on the government to be cautious about how it handles religious issues. President Wade sent his influential son, Karim, who is also a Cabinet minister, to deliver a personal apology to Archbishop Sarr after the stone-throwing Christian youths clashed with security forces outside Dakar cathedral on Wednesday.
The archbishop had said: “We were shaken and humiliated by the comparison which the head of state made between the monument to African renaissance and the representations found in our churches.” President Wade had sought to deflect the criticism of his statue on religious grounds by comparing it to the statues of Jesus Christ found in churches.
He hopes that the statue will attract more tourists to the country but many Senegalese feel the money could be better spent. The statue, intended to symbolise the fight against racism, was Mr Wade’s idea and he says he will personally take 35 per cent of the revenue it generates, with the rest going to the state.