The Church in Chad has a much shorter history than any other in Africa. It was only in 1928 that the first Catholic priest, Fr. René Calloc’h of the Holy Ghost Fathers (Spiritans) set foot in today’s Sarh, then named Fort Archambault. The first mission was established one year later in Kou, near Moundou, by Fr. Gabriel Herriau, together with two Central African cathechists: in fact, southern Chad was then part of the Oubangui-Chari apostolic prefecture. Despite that the first ten Chadians had been baptized in 1930, it was not before 1946 that widespread evangelization took place on a systematic basis in the entire territory. The congregations and religious orders involved at that time were the Jesuits, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) and the Capuchins.
Nowadays, the Catholics make up just 18% of the total population, while Protestants (mainly belonging to Evangelical denominations) are 16% and followers of traditional beliefs 8%. Islam, with 58%, is by far the most practiced religion and local Muslims mainly belong to the moderate Sufi Tijaniyah tradition. The consequences for Catholics of such a diverse landscape of beliefs have been underlined by Pope Francis, when he spoke to the bishops of the country during their ‘ad limina’ visit to the Vatican, on 2 October 2014. “The Church in Chad, notwithstanding her growth and vitality, is clearly in the minority amid a population with a Muslim majority and which is still partly attached to its traditional forms of worship”, the Holy Father said at the time. “I encourage you – he added – to see that the Church, which is respected and listened to, totally retain her rightful place in the society of Chad in which she has become a structural component even where she is a minority”.
In such a situation, the pope reminded the local prelates that interreligious dialogue is both a necessity and a duty for Christians. After remembering the late Archbishop Mathias N’Gartéri Mayadi of N’Djamena, “who strove so hard to promote the coexistence of the different religious communities”, Francis encouraged the Episcopal Conference to continue with “similar initiatives”, in order to “discourage the development of the violence which victimizes Christians in some of your neighbouring countries”. The aftermath of the Boko Haram attacks in the capital in June and July has shown how seriously this exhortation has been taken by the Church. On the same day when the last attack was carried out, a group comprising both Christian and Muslim youth was holding a seminar organized by the Al-Mouna Centre, one of the several structures devoted to interfaith dialogue: when the news of the attack came, the some 400 people present decided to continue their meeting.
Extremism, so, has not managed to stop the efforts for peaceful coexistence: on the contrary, it has given them more strength. In addition to public prayers and official meetings and celebrations, Christians and Muslims are encouraging conflict management at a grassroots level, creating groups of ‘neighbourhood mediators’, particularly in N’Djamena. The relationships with the government – despite the bad record on human rights and disputes such as the one on oil revenues – are also usually good. The state is officially defined as secular, but in the past, the authorities have even provided funding for the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral in N’Djamena.
Social work and evangelization, both commended by Pope Francis in his speech to the Bishops, proceed at the same pace, both in the urban and the rural areas. However, the youngest of the African Churches still faces a big challenge with respect to local clergy: many of the country dioceses are still governed by missionary bishops. That’s why the Holy Father also emphasized the role of lay catechists, by saying: “The catechist must be properly trained not only intellectually – which is absolutely crucial – but also humanly and spiritually, in order that, as Christ’s true witness, his or her teaching may actually bear fruit”.
The Pope’s proposal was that every diocese had a training centre for catechists, and, in the longer term, of the laity. In fact, Francis stated, “the work of evangelization among the faithful must be continually repeated and deepened”, especially in a country “where the influence of some cultural traditions is very strong, where less morally challenging religious proposals appear everywhere, and where secularization is gaining ground”. So, the Bishops have been encouraged to “update the catechetical methods” by including in them some elements of the previous traditions which do not contrast with the Cristian faith. However, as the Pope made clear, inculturation does not concern values which are not at all Christian: the latter, Francis said “must be openly denounced”.