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Ajisafe: matters arising

October 3, 2017 By Kingsley Lington*

Full disclosure: Pastor Victor Ajesafe is my friend. He officiated at my wedding. I admire his grasp of bible’s intricate details, his ability to mobilise, organize and motivate his followers, and his spirituality. He’s even prayed for me many times.

But his much publicized comments on Islam were off the mark. In short, my pastor screwed up. Yet let’s be careful not to break the calabash while killing the rat in it.

First, here’s why the pastor got it wrong:  It may sound trite but Sierra Leone is a beacon of religious tolerance. But for the harmonious relationship between people of different faiths, the debilitating civil war of the 90s might have turned the country into a Somalia: dismembered by a crisis with religious anxieties adding fuel to fire.

No, that didn’t happen. Sierra Leone is an oasis of people of different religious inclinations. Other countries are envious, including neighbours and big brother Nigeria, where Muslims and Christians are sometimes in a relationship best described as complicated.

I truly believe that Pastor Ajisafe’s utterances were driven by momentary emotional outburst rather than any calculated strategy to insult Muslims. Such outbursts mostly happen when religious leaders get in a flow state — a transcendental flourish of the spirit during which they are like ultra-humans, appearing to monopolize unrestricted heavenly access. In that state, earthly ramifications of words and actions are often utterly inconsequential.

For example not long ago, a Zimbabwean pastor named Paul Sanyangore of the Victory World International Ministries whipped out his mobile phone in the heat of his sermon and “telephoned” heaven. “Hello, is this heaven?” the pastor bellowed into a microphone as thousands stood bemused. “I have a woman here, what do you have to say to her?” The nonplused woman gazed, as if trapped in trance, and seemed to believe that someone in heaven was indeed talking with the pastor over the phone.

Pastor Ajisafe handed his many critics a cudgel to beat him to a pulp. My friend Lans Gberie has been unsparing, as have many others, Christians and Muslims, who are asking for the pastor’s head on a platter. By the time this article is published, he could well be on his way to Golgotha. And many have also come to his defense. Opinions are baked in; we have a babel of voices, for and against Mr. Ajisafe’s comments, but some people calling for calm and                a peaceful resolution.

Sierra Leone’s political and religious leaders can take a long view and adopt a measured approach. Reactions needn’t jive with boiling emotions; they need only focus on the goal of ensuring a pastor’s comments do not congeal into a metastasizing cancer. It is commendable that the Mufti, some pastors and Imams and others are eager for peace to reign.

Here is why I am concerned: A friend called me from Ethiopia a few days ago to ask if it’s true that Christians were being persecuted in Sierra Leone. Of course that’s a hyperbole, but the question accentuates the fact that local issues can easily become tissues of falsehoods for global public consumption. In a post-truth world, facts are often mangled within seconds in the social media mill, and interpretations of events such as Ajisafe’s can be infinitely elastic.

It means, for example, that uprooting Pastor Ajisafe and his ministry, even by force of law, could become a cheap fodder for religious fundamentalists – on both sides. Let’s be frank: individuals, organisations and countries (and we know many of these) with warped ideas of Islam or Christianity are ready to conjure a caricature image of a country hostile towards Christianity. And not a few will swallow the bait.

‘Nonsense, everyone knows Ajisafe is the problem,’ some may stress. True, except that in a communications war, aggressors often have enormous advantage.

The second point is that jailing the pastor and shutting down his church, as some are advocating, will likely not kill and bury this matter. On the contrary, the issue will fester, and those with sympathies for the pastor, even if in a minority at the moment, could become poisonously vociferous.

Understanding the emotional connections between religious leaders and their followers is a complex undertaking. Why do tens of thousands go to a stadium to hear a pastor or an Imam, for example? Why do millions of poor people contribute money to buy religious leaders expensive cars or even private jets? The answer is that the faithfuls perceive these leaders as God’s representatives whose every step is directed by a supernatural being. If so, many who may be currently unsettled by the pastor’s statements will not abandon him.

So, what can we do?

What to do has to depend on what to achieve. First thing first, the pastor cannot be celebrated for his unwarranted comments and, more importantly, peace must prevail in the land.

The government arrested and rattled pastor Ajisafe, which will likely assuage many people’s anger; however, leaders must now quickly bring this matter to a closure. It is good that the pastor acknowledged and recognized that his comments were inflammatory and apologised to his Sierra Leonean Muslim “brothers and sisters.” There should be no qualms accepting that those comments are inappropriate. That makes him only human; it wouldn’t lower his esteem on earth or in heaven.

The Inter-Religious Council and the government must now help lower the temperature through statements that foster peace and reconciliation.

Hopefully, the flames of anger will be doused very soon. The country and its leaders can then claim victory in the way it resolved the crisis. Those girding their loins for a battle to shackle or unshackle pastor Ajisafe will have to sheathe their swords. The firebrand pastor is unlikely to touch such high-voltage issues in the future. Mr. Ajisafe is very capable of leading his faithfuls along the path that Jesus paved — I have seen him do it in the past.

And finally, we can all live happily ever after!

*Dr. Kingsley Lington was once editor of Concord Times. These are his personal views.

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