Ivory Coast Table of Contents

Most Ivoirians practice local religions, which are sometimes infused with elements of Christianity or Islam, or both. Government estimates in the 1980s suggested that about one-fourth of the population was Muslim, and one-eighth, Christian--mostly Roman Catholic.

Islam and Christianity are practiced in a variety of forms throughout the country, as different social and spiritual problems bring forth a variety of responses. Islam has been practiced in the far north for roughly seven centuries, shifting its appeal over this time from its strength as a world religion and its basis in written testaments to its symbolic importance as an alternative to European religions. Christian missionaries arrived at the coast in the seventeenth century but did not win converts in large numbers until the nineteenth century. Christianity's appeal was strongest among educated Africans and those who sought advancement through European contact. Christian holidays are officially recognized, but Muslim celebrations are also held, and, as in many areas of national life, tolerance is the general attitude toward the practice of religion.

Religious communities generally coexist peacefully, in part because no world religion has been enthusiastically embraced by a majority of people. Conversions have been an individual matter in most cases, and many families include Muslims and Christians living together. Religious tolerance is also part of government policy. The president personally contributes to the cost of building mosques and churches, and he encourages both Muslims and Christians to assist in projects undertaken by other religious communities. Religious practitioners have also earned substantial goodwill through the services they offer their communities, especially in health and education, and by their overall contribution to social harmony.

The Constitution calls for a secular state, although this is not interpreted as strict separation of church and state. Officials often attend religious ceremonies as representatives of the state, and some mission schools receive government aid. Missionaries are generally welcomed throughout the nation, although their teachings seldom replace centuries-old systems of spiritual belief and practice that form the basis of cultural unity.

African religions have maintained their credibility because they provide effective explanations for many of life's dilemmas in ways that can only be understood in their cultural context. Local religions reassure people that they are living in harmony with the universe and that this harmony can be preserved by maintaining proper relationships with all beings. For this reason, separating religion from other aspects of life serves to distort, rather than clarify, its meaning.

According to most local belief systems, spiritual beings--a creator, ancestral spirits, and spirits associated with places and objects--can influence a person's life and luck. This is the major premise on which belief and practice are based. The distinction between the spiritual and physical "worlds," in Western secular terms, is unimportant in the face of what is interpreted as overwhelming evidence that physical events may have spiritual causes.

Lineages are also important in understanding the organization of many Ivoirian religions. The spiritual unity of the descent group transcends distinctions among the unborn, the living, and the deceased. In this context, religious differences are not based on disagreements over dogma or doctrine. Rather, groups living in different social and physical environments encounter different spiritual and physical dangers, and their religious needs differ accordingly. This diversity accounts, in part, for early missionaries in West Africa who often described the spiritual "chaos" they encountered, when they were actually observing different social groupings, each with different spiritual obligations to ancestral and other spirits, acting in accordance with common beliefs about the nature of the universe.

Local Religions
Syncretic Religions

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress