DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - Tanzania’s president said tensions between Muslims and Christians were rising ahead of a constitutional referendum and elections and warned religious leaders against political meddling, saying this could stoke violence.
A spate of violent attacks on Christian and Muslim leaders over the past few years has raised concerns of an escalation of sectarian tensions in relatively stable and secular Tanzania, east Africa’s second largest economy.
Jakaya Kikwete told a meeting of religious leaders in a speech seen by Reuters on Sunday that the referendum slated for April 30 and presidential and parliamentary elections set for October had raised the specter of violence.
“The threat to peace is high,” he told the gathering, held late on Saturday in the commercial capital Dar es Salaam.
“You don’t need to be a master of astrology to know that the current situation, if left unchecked, could plunge our country into a major conflict between Christians and Muslims.”
Tanzania’s population of 45 million is roughly evenly split between Muslims and Christians.
The new constitution would replace one approved in 1977 when Tanzania was under one-party rule and it has drawn criticism from some Christian clergy.
Kikwete said their opposition to the proposed charter was probably meant as retaliation for his government’s decision to present legislation that would allow Tanzanian courts to recognize verdicts from Islamic ‘Kadhi’ courts.
“I’ve been saddened and dismayed by these statements because I did not expect religious leaders whom we all respect to do this,” said Kikwete, who is a Muslim.
The courts would allow Muslims to enforce marriage, divorce, inheritance and family rights in their community, but some Christian leaders say they undermine Tanzania’s secular state.
Kikwete said the Kadhi courts would only adjudicate on Muslim issues and would receive no state funding, adding that the secular courts would remain superior to them.
“The government will not set up Kadhi courts. Instead these courts will be established by Muslims themselves ... I do not see any reason whatsoever for religious leaders to instruct their worshippers to vote against the proposed constitution.”
Many Muslims living along Tanzania’s coast feel marginalized by the secular government, providing fertile recruitment grounds for Islamist groups such as Somalia’s al Shabaab, which operates further north along Africa’s eastern seaboard.
The semi-autonomous Zanzibar islands have posed the biggest headache for the Tanzanian government because of religious tensions and deep social and economic divisions, but there has been a lull in sectarian violence in the mainly Muslim archipelago over the past year.
Editing by George Obulutsa and Gareth Jones