ZIMBABWE. A Muslim group which issued demands to the government of Zimbabwe to scale down the Christian emphasis in schools - with the threat of legal action - has backed down.

In a letter received by the Education Ministry on 5 August, the Islamic Convent of the Strict Observance (ICSO) complained that Zimbabwe's school calendar only made provision for Christian holidays and that prayers during assembly to the "Christian God" and Christian religious instruction prejudiced a Muslim's right to freedom of religious expression. The letter gave the government 60 days to rectify the situation or else face a Supreme Court challenge. However on 13 August the ICSO withdrew their demands, acknowledging that they had not canvassed the prevailing opinion of Muslims in Zimbabwe.

The argument of the ICSO appeals to liberal ideals in its calls for the secularisation of schools, but the group also advocates the strict observance of Islamic religious teachings and is undoubtedly keen to promote its own Islamic agenda in Zimbabwe's schools.

Over 70% of Zimbabwe's population identify themselves as Christians and the Muslim community only represents 1%. The Education Minister responded to the letter saying: "We accept the existence of the minority and their rights and we are not against their religion. But it will be foolhardy for them to expect us to transform a whole school curriculum to cater for two Muslim pupils [at a typical school in Harare]."

The demands of the ICSO come at a time when Colonel Gaddafi of Libya has been strongly asserting his influence in Zimbabwe. It is known that much of the support for Muslim groups in other African countries (such as Senegal and Nigeria) comes from Libya; furthermore The Times (9 August) quotes a diplomatic source as saying that "Colonel Gaddafi has always had this dream of being the leader of Africa". His influence in Zimbabwe is particularly strong at present because President Mugabe owes so much for unpaid supplies of oil. A large proportion of the land that Mugabe ruthlessly seized from white farmers is thought to be part of a deal to pay for these debts.

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