Senegal has a reputation for harmony between its Muslim majority (about 90%) and Christian minority (about 6%). President Abdoulaye Wade ranks as a Muslim champion of dialogue with Christians and even with Jews. So it came as a surprise over the holiday period that the 83-year-old leader provoked separate protests by imams and Catholics, including the country’s cardinal. Even stranger, the dispute was sparked by a huge Stalinist-style statue that North Korean workers are constructing on a hill overlooking the capital Dakar.
Wade stirred up protests in recent months from imams who say the project smacks of idolatry and its celebration of a near-naked man and woman offends Muslim modesty. He compounded the problem by announcing that he, as the memorial’s designer, would personally take 35% of its expected tourism receipts. When the imams’ campaign spread with anti-memorial speeches in the mosques, Wade rejected their suggestion the statue was somehow pagan. “There are worse things that happen in churches,” he told a meeting of teachers on Dec. 28. “They pray to Jesus in churches and he’s not a god. Everybody knows this, but nobody has ever said we have to knock down the churches. Nobody has ever objected or cared what the people do there.”
At a meeting in the Catholic cathedral in Dakar on Dec. 30, Cardinal Theodore Adrien Sarr responded firmly: “We were shaken and humiliated by the comparison the head of state made between the monument to African renaissance and the representations found in our churches. It is scandalous and unacceptable that the divinity of Jesus is jeered and questioned by the highest authority of state.” At the same time, he urged Catholics to stay calm and thanked Muslims who had criticised Wade’s comments. Despite that, several hundred Catholics began a protest outside the cathedral, located close to the presidential palace, and security forces quickly intervened to break it up.
Wade sent his son to apologise, but Sarr demanded a public apology from the president himself. Wade did so in his New Year’s address to the nation, after saying his comments had been misreported by media opposed to him. “I would like to say to my Christian compatriots that I never intended to attack their religion, which I respect. If certain members of the Christian community felt offended by the way they understood my comments, I am the first to regret this,” he said. Sarr accepted his apology in a statement in which he stressed that he had reacted to “the words the chief of state actually used, and not on reports or commentaries in the press.”