Religious leaders in northern Mozambique are making attempts to prevent any possible outbreak of communal violence after three mosques were burnt in a matter of weeks in Lichinga, capital of Niassa Province.
The police are investigating arson attacks on the mosques, one of which was set alight last week. The incidents are highly unusual in Mozambique, where religious tolerance is the norm. A suspect has been arrested.
According to local news reports, the suspect has alleged that foreign Catholic individuals are involved in the arson attacks, and the police are trying to establish whether the claims have any veracity.
The Catholic Church has condemned the mosque burnings. "Some in the Muslim community were quite upset of course but realised that, so far, it is only the act of this person," said Father Joaquim Lopez at the Roman Catholic Church in Lichinga.
Lopez is working with Muslim and community leaders to dispel rumours and appeal for peace. He said relations between the two communities have been good to the degree that Muslim and Catholic families and children intermingled socially, and that the current Bishop had helped build one of the mosques damaged in the attacks.
Approximately 20 percent of Mozambique's 19 million people are Muslim, most of whom live in the northern half of the country. During the last 10 years, numerous evangelical Christian missionaries have moved into northern Mozambique, and the government reports that it is the fastest-growing religious group in the country.
"The possibility is there that someone might have paid him [the suspect] to do that in an attempt to create animosity between Catholics and Muslims," said Lopez. "But it is understood by the Muslim community that it is not the act of a Christian."
Hassan Makda, leader of the Mozambique Islamic Congress, said his group had a delegation conducting their own investigation while promoting peace in Lichinga.
"Those acts are condemned, but not the people of other faiths," said Makda. "I don't believe their religion teaches them to do harm to others. What we have to do is be careful, because no other conflict is as dangerous as a religious conflict. All the community leaders are meeting and asking people not to retaliate. As leaders, we must strengthen the community."
Provincial Governor Arnaldo Bimbe said there were no prior indications of growing religious tension in the area, and was of the opinion that the burnings could be attributed to simple vandalism by a disturbed man.
Police spokesman Pedro Cossa said the authorities suspected personal animosity rather than communal discord as the motive for the attacks.
Last year concerns were voiced over the possibility that a less tolerant form of Islam might be seeping into the society after a split in the community over its response to the reprinting of controversial cartoons by a local newspaper that depicted Prophet Muhammad, which had been originally published in Denmark.