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Mozambique fears growth of Islam

Muslim members of Mozambique’s Parliament are trying to pass a law recognising the days of Eid as public holidays. Andrew Meldrum reports from Boane

Sabati Omar breaks from his work building a mosque to explain how Islam is growing in Boane, a rural area in southern Mozambique.

“Every month we see somebody convert,” says Omar, 25, who has taken time off from his job at a general store to help build the domed mosque. “People are attracted because they see strength in our religion. They see how hard we work, how we lead clean lives. Our faith gives hope to poor people.”

The growth of Islam in Mozambique is provoking controversy as the religion begins to flex its political muscle. parliament has passed a law to make the two days of Eid — which mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan — public holidays. The bill was introduced by parliament’s 59 Muslim members and backed by the ruling Frelimo party.

However, Roman Catholics and other Christians object to the Muslim holidays and, perhaps because of the controversy, President Joaquim Chissano has delayed signing the Bill into law.

“We oppose these holidays because if the Muslims succeed at this they will impose other laws,” the Catholic Cardinal Dom Alexandre dos Santos says. “Tomorrow we could find that fundamentalism has taken over.”

Dos Santos and the Christian Council have urged Chissano not to enact the Eid holiday Bill. They suggest a tolerencia de ponto which would allow Muslims to take the days as holiday. Muslims say workplaces and schools would not honour the informal holiday.

In its Marxist zeal after coming to power in 1975, the Frelimo government made Christmas a non- religious holiday called Family Day. Christians charge that they do not have any public holidays, but Muslims counter that every Sunday is a Christian holiday.

Mozambique seems a long way from the centres of Islam. More than 800 years ago Arab traders brought the faith to trading posts along the country’s Indian Ocean coast.

Portuguese colonialists imposed Catholicism 300 years later and forced Muslims to take Christian names. But the Muslim faith has remained strong, particularly in the north.

According to a 1991 government survey, Muslims make up about 20% of the 17-million population, while Catholics account for 24%, Protestants 21% and 30% follow traditional practices of ancestral worship. However, Muslim leaders claim their own numbers are much greater.

“Muslims are 40 to 50% of the population,” Nazir Lunat, a businessman and Frelimo member of parliament, says. “We were suppressed in the colonial time and during Frelimo’s Marxist years. We could not stand up and be counted openly.”

Lunat is overseeing the construction of a mosque in Maputo’s wealthy Polana district, joining 22 other mosques in the capital. Some observers say Arab states are funding the proliferation of mosques across the country, a claim Lunat denies.

Mozambique’s main opposition group, Renamo, is firmly against the Eid holidays. “It is clear in our constitution that we have a lay state, which is not for any religion,” Raul Domingos, Renamo’s leader in parliament, says.

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