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Religion and Society

From Benin, a land of age-long ecumenism, a blueprint for Unesco

Africa is not outside history but makes history and Benin, a land of age-long ecumenism, where endogenous religions coexist and interact with Christianity and Islam, has been the symbolic and adequate place to help understand that authentic cultures are neither inward-looking nor fossilized at a particular point in history but draw from each other's abundance. Besides, in a such a terrain of confluence [of different cultures] one learns to appreciate to what extent religions contribute to man's humanization: man is fully man when he recognizes God as the meaning of his own life. This is what I had the opportunity to focus on during the International Colloquium on The Dialogue between African Endogenous Religions, Islam and Christianity for the Sake of Culture and Peace in Africa, which took place at the end of August in Benin's capital Cotonou and was promoted by Benin's government in collaboration with UNESCO. During this dialogue among 140 representatives of the three "religious groups", mainly from French-speaking Africa, as the Observer for the Holy See at UNESCO I pointed out some key elements for the reflection set in the title: the fact that extremists of whatever denomination not only exploit the peoples but destroy the truth about God, thus actually transforming God into an idol; the need to create courses in Philosophy and Theology of Religion within the UNESCO Chairs for Inter-religious Dialogue, increasingly promoted and requested also in Africa, to foster a clearer definition and understanding of the religious fact, today more crucial than ever for an effective communal work; the importance of self-exposure in order to begin a real dialogue aimed not only at making oneself known and tolerated but also at getting to know God and one's neighbor. The context of the colloquy, i.e., the rich land of Africa, has brought to our attention the fact that a real dialogue cannot be limited to researching once again the history of religions, as happened in the 19th and 20th centuries, when many "liberal" and "rationalist" scholars deliberately placed themselves outside or above religions, claiming to judge them with the certainty of enlightened reason. Today, in fact, such a viewpoint is no longer thinkable: in order to understand religion one must experience it from within and only through this experience, which is inevitably particular and depending on a particular starting point, can one arrive at an understanding of the other person as well as an in-depth comprehension and purification of religion. All of us would like to say a word that any human being may understand. The witness, that is, the "martyr" is precisely one who does not fear self-exposure, gives his life for this Word and demonstrates that it is possible to live a life where each person's existence may be a pure gift for the other.

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