Reacting to Muslim primary school students’ desecration of Bibles in Malawi earlier this month, a local priest said that their vehement reaction is novel and a sign that militancy is a possible danger.
Representatives of the Gideons Bible organization had offered a Catholic primary school in a predominant Muslim area free copies of the New Testament, the local parish priest Fr. Medrick M. Chimbwanya told the Germany-based Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). Although the school had made it clear that no Bibles were to be given to the Muslim pupils and that no one was obliged to take a copy, some Muslim youths created an uproar.
They tore up the Bibles, threw them at their teachers and then threw torn pages on the streets. Some of the students denounced the Bible distribution to their religious leaders as an “insult to Islam” and claimed that they had been forced to accept a Bible.
In the days after the incident, Catholics feared violent attacks from Muslim groups, Fr. Chimbwayna reported.
"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,” he said. “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.”
The local daily, The Nation Newspaper, falsely indicated that the Bible distribution included Muslim students. It did not interview Christian witnesses or indeed any actual eyewitnesses, the priest reported. Its incorrect information also included the claim that the parents of the pupils had torn up the Bibles.
The day after the incident, Muslim religious teachers had come to the school to demand an apology. One Muslim teacher, an actual witness of events, drew severe attacks when he tried to correct the record. A few days later the religious leaders were called upon to speak with the pupils who had torn up the Bibles to demand an apology from them.
Sheikh Disi, the leader of the Muslims in the region, called upon all the students to respect the faith of others. However, other Muslims were not happy.
Fr. Chimbwayna told ACN there is need to begin a grassroots dialogue with representatives of Islam. While misunderstandings and incidents like the Bible uproar tend to “come and go,” they have not yet led to the establishment of an organized discussion with ordinary Muslims.
"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.
The southeast African country of Malawi has about 14 million people, about four million of whom are Catholic. Christians compose about 80 percent of the population and another 13 percent are Muslims.
The Diocese of Mangochi, where the Bible desecration took place, is predominantly Muslim but has about half a million Catholics served by 59 priests. It has 255 primary schools, 34 kindergartens and 27 secondary schools, all of which are also attended by Muslims.