NIAMEY, Niger (ChurchMilitant.com) - Two bishops from the West African nation of Niger have written a Christmas letter encouraging dialogue with the the country's Muslim majority.
The message, signed by Abp. Laurent Lompo of Niamey, the Nigerien capital, and Bp. Ambroise Ouedraogo of Maradi, extended the invitation for conversation in light of the close proximity of Christmas and the Islamic feast of Mouloud.
The feast of Mouloud — also referred to as Maouloud or Mawlid — is a moveable celebration that fell this year on December 24; it is the observance of the birth of the Islamic prophet Mohammed, deriving its name from an Arabic root word meaning "to give birth to a child or descendant."
"This year the feast of Mouloud and Christmas coincide," reads the bishops' letter. "This sign invites us, Christians and Muslims, to dialogue in order to bring peace to the world in the name of our common faith in Abraham, ancestor of all believers."
The bishops, ordinaries of Niger's two ecclesiastical districts, write that the coinciding of the two celebrations is "a sign of the Almighty God who calls us to unity in the diversity as believers," noting that "the actuality of our country calls us, Christians and Muslims, to embody love, forgiveness and respect for others, to ensure peace and allow national unity to grow."
The letter was supported by other African bishops, with some penning messages of their own. Monsignor Benjamin Ndiaye, the archbishop of Dakar in the coastal country of Senegal, wrote that he hopes "the proximity of the Muslim feast of Maouloud and the Christian Christmas contributes to a larger community of believers, in prayer and fraternal love."
But even within the Muslim community the feast of Mouloud carries mixed feelings, with some factions stating that the celebration of Mohammed's birthday flies in the face of Islamic law. Countries that do celebrate the feast often do so publicly with street processions and recitations of poetry and stories about the founder of Islam. An additional few prescribe fasting and prayer, in addition to reading from the Koran, as being sufficient means of celebration.
Sunni and Shi'a Muslims also disagree on the date that should be used to mark Mohammed's birth.
Christmas Eve and Mouloud have not coincided for 457 years.
To learn more about Islam, watch our program "Mic'd Up—The Truth About Islam."