COTONOU, Benin – Tensions have mounted in Benin after authorities cleared illegal structures from sidewalks including temporary awnings beside mosques where large numbers of worshippers gather for Friday prayers.
Muslims, who account for nearly one-fourth of this West African nation's more than 10 million people, say new mosques must be built and until then worshippers will crowd the streets for the weekly prayers.
"Our mosques are not big enough for all the Muslims to fit inside at the same time. So people are not praying on the streets out of choice," said Lawal Fafana, imam at the Place Bulgarie mosque in the country's largest city, Cotonou.
On Friday afternoons, mats are laid out on the streets beside mosques, creating traffic jams in the city center as hundreds pray.
After talks with the Muslim community, the government appears to have backed down from suggestions it would ban praying in the street. Interior Minister Sacca Lafia, however, has said that Friday prayers must be quick.
President Patrice Talon recently met with Muslim leaders to reassure them that the government's objective is not to attack their faith and that it will contribute money to help construct more mosques.
Benin has a tradition of tolerance between the faiths, including Christians, Muslims and animists.
"We have been able to hold our prayers peacefully, calmly and, glory be to God, I think that if things go on like this we won't have any more problems in Benin," said Abdul Gafar Issiakou, a local resident. "Working together we can find a solution for a peaceful future."