|Hannah Foster, Executive Director ACDHRS|
To open or not to open with prayers, the NGOs Forum in Banjul was a heated debate in November last year, with arguments from both those in support and against the subject greeted by raucous applause.
This year, during the opening of NGOs Forum in the 49th Ordinary Session of the African Center on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and the 23rd African Human Rights Book Fair, in Banjul on April 25, Hannah Foster suggested the participants pray in their own way, irrespective of whatever religion they belong.
The change followed an advice she received after last year’s disapproval of using Islamic and Christianity prayers to open the forum.
“I think you can all remember that last year there were disagreements amongst us as to whether we should open the Forum with prayers or not. This year I have decided that each and every one of us prays in their own way, after having received some advice on the subject,” she said.
On November 7, 2010, human rights defenders who attended the NGOs Forum, which preceded the 48th Ordinary Session of the ACHPR and the 22nd AHR Book Fair, clearly expressed their differences along religious lines.
Traditionally, the Forum opens with prayers from the two leading religions in The Gambia, Islam and Christianity; however, the act has always left some rights defenders a little bit perplexed over the years, though they have muted about it.
The West African representative of the International Humanists and Ethical Union Leo Igwe sternly said he objected to the Forum being opened with (Islamic and Christianity) prayers.
“The use of prayers in the two faiths (Islam and Christianity) is not a fair representation of all religions and I am totally against it,” Leo Igwe stressed.
His stance, greeted by applause and disapproval, Igwe suggested that the Forum be free from religious doctrines and urges the organisers to ensure that there is not a repeat of opening the Forum with prayers in the future.
However, his opinion did not go down well with the Executive Director of the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS) Madam Hannah Foster who argued that the programme was circulated long before and there were no reports of disapproval from the members of the Forum.
“If anyone does not want to hear the prayers at the opening of the Forum, then you can excuse us,” she said in defence as the organisers of the Forum.
“Democracy is a representative of the views of the majority,” she said, but this statement received stern disapproval from some rights defenders who supports Igwe’s position.
“I can see others are clapping but I don’t think Igwe’s comments represent the views of the majority,” Hannah Foster argued.
She added: “Offering prayers have been a tradition since the beginning of Forum. In The Gambia we respect religious tolerance and I don’t think we will change that.”
Like Igwe, her stance was also greeted with applause and disapproval, leaving members of the Forum divided between two walls. Some others were clearly sitting on the fence as they neither applaud nor disapprove of the comments made by both sides.
In a peacekeeping move, the Chair of the panel on an “Overview of human rights situation in Africa”, Andrew Chigovera, who seems not to be taking sides, said the arguments cannot resolve the situation.
“I think if need be, the Forum can pass a recommendation whether to or not to include prayers during the opening of the Forum,” he suggested.
When everything seems to have been set aside after the intervention of the Chair, Sheikh Lewis, Gambia’s representative for the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) takes the floor and argued that Igwe’s objection cannot be condoned.
“As far as the Forum is held in our country, we will continue to observe religious tolerance and will continue to open the Forum with prayers,” he said in support of Hannah Foster.
Everything about the topic was muted there after and the Forum failed to make it a “special feature” to consider the issue of prayers in observing the bi-annual event, however, it is now clear that there marked differences have been settled.