Many African Christians, Muslims Hold 'Apocalyptic' Beliefs

A significant number of Christians and Muslims in Africa hold end times beliefs, a new study finds.

In every African country surveyed by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life that had a considerable Christian population, at least half of the Christians expect Jesus to return to earth within their lifetime.

And in every country surveyed with a substantial Muslim population, about one-third or more of the Muslims expect to see the reestablishment of the Caliphate during their lifetime. The Caliphate is the golden age of Islamic rule after the death of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The empire of the Caliphate at its height included most of Southwest Asia, North Africa and Spain.

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"[T]he sense of apocalyptic expectation seems to be a very, very important theme in African Christianity and African Islam," said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, on Thursday during a media call.

"This sense that people have that they are living at a time of momentous religious events," he said. "It is not just believing that the Caliphate will at some point be established or that Jesus will return at some point, but in their lifetime."

Lugo said he connects these end times beliefs to the fervent practice of religion in Africa that is characterized by "very intense personal experiences of the spiritual world."

"This is what some people call 'hot religion,' nothing lukewarm about the practice of religion in Africa," he said.

The findings are part of the new report "Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa." The report is based on 25,000 in-person interviews conducted in more than 60 languages and dialects in 19 countries that explore religion and society in the sub-Saharan Africa region. The survey is part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project, which aims to increase people's knowledge of religion around the world.

In most of the countries surveyed, 90 percent of the respondents identified as Christian or Muslim, and very few people are religiously unaffiliated.

Sub-Saharan Africa, Pew pointed out, is "clearly among the most religious places in the world." Even Botswana, the least religious nation surveyed, had a significantly higher percentage of people who said religion is very important in their lives (69 percent) compared to the United States (57 percent), which is considered among the most religious countries in the world.

Out of 19 sub-Saharan nations measured, 16 of them had more than 80 percent of their population say religion is very important in their lives. At the top of the list is Senegal at 98 percent.

For many Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa, their religious experiences include divine healing, witnessing the devil being driven out of a person or receiving a direct revelation from God. Pew commented that these experiences are also characteristic of traditional African religions.

About one in four Christians in sub-Sahara Africa hold traditional African religious beliefs, which includes making sacrifices to spirits or believing that ancestors can protect them from bad fortune, the survey shows. Pew highlighted that a large number of not only Christians but also Muslims integrate elements of traditional African religions into their faith, including witchcraft and protective charms.

"Traditional African faith don't seem to be an identity in quite the same way as Islam or Christianity," said Gregory Smith, senior research at Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "When we ask people what is your religion … very few people tell us that what they are in terms of their religion is a member of a traditional African faith. Instead these are beliefs and practices that they incorporate rather than identity they associate with."

Africa, explained Lugo, was chosen as the focus for the first of a series of surveys for the Global Religious Futures Project because it is the only continent in the world where there is a roughly equal division between the two largest religions in the world – Christianity and Islam.

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