Religious tolerance in Nigeria – A View from the North

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By  Margee  Ensign
If  you think the title of this story is  “religious intolerance” in Nigeria then you have been swayed by recent stories from the international media. You –and they—are wrong. Much of  the international press covering the unrest and violence in Nigeria recently has been inaccurate, irresponsible and even dangerous. Nigeria is “on the brink”, many claim because of conflict between Muslims and Christians.

It is true that at least 40 people were killed on Christmas day in churches. This is horrific and has been condemned not only in Nigeria but also around the world. Boko Haram has claimed responsibility, and those responsible must be found and held accountable-_something that does not happen in Nigeria regularly.

In the month since then, fear has led many to warn and believe that Nigeria is on the brink of a religious war.  The week of protests from strikes related to removing the subsidy fueled even more fears, concerns and inaccurate reporting.  There were strikes; there were major protests.

This is a common reaction that occurs around the world when people have to pay more for a basic commodity.  Strikes shut down Greece last fall when public spending was cut and taxes increased. Three died in Greece, probably 10 died in Nigeria.

Has there been religious conflict? There have been deaths in churches. There have been deaths in mosques. It is very difficult to disentangle what happened with each of  these deaths—an ambiguity that opens a window for manipulation and inaccurate reporting.

In our hometown of  Yola,  three people were killed in a Church last week.  Religious Conflict in Yola, screamed the national and international headlines.

But police investigations here point to a family feud—not religious conflict. Bishop Kukah, a leading Catholic Bishop and intellectual has been gathering information on these recent  killings. According to him:Last year a Christian woman went to her own parish church in Bauchi and tried to set it ablaze.

Again, recently, a man alleged to be a Christian, dressed as a Muslim, went to burn down a church in Bayelsa. In Plateau State, a man purported to be a Christian was arrested while trying to bomb a church. Armed men gunned down a group of Christians meeting in a Church and now it turned out that those who have been arrested and are under interrogation are in fact not Muslims and that the story is more of an internal crisis.

In Zamfara State, 19 Muslims were killed. After investigation it was discovered that those who killed them were not Christians. Other similar incidents have occurred across the country.

Here is a story that has not been written, spoken, or sung from the rooftops, churches and mosques around the world —the story of Christians and Muslims coming together to protect each other, and develop their communities. In the last week alone, in the city of  Kano, Muslim leaders attended Sunday church services as a show of faith and tolerance. “We are here to deliver a message of  hope, a message of peace, a message of solidarity, said Bashir Ishaq Bashir who led the Muslim delegation.

Once, again, as Bishop Kukah has found: In Minna and  in Lagos, the same thing repeated itself as Christians joined hands to protect Muslims as they prayed. In the last week,  Christians and Muslims together in solidarity are protesting against bad governance and corruption beyond the falsehood of religion. Once freed from the grip of these dark forces, religion will be able to play its role as a force for harmony, truth and the common good.  And in our small town of  Yola, several remarkable stories are emerging.

Our Interfaith Mediation Centre Dialogue Forum, released the following statement this week:
In the wake of recent security challenges, Muslim and Christian communities across Nigeria have resolved to be their brother’s keeper during religious congregations in the future.

This resolution is fast gaining momentum around the country. In key cities such as Lagos, Kaduna, Kano and Abuja Christians have shielded Muslim faithful from any possible attack during the weekly Friday congregational prayers in major mosques.

In line with the resolution, Muslims have also provided the same protection for their Christian brethren around major Churches during Sunday service congregations. These hands of  brotherhood, solidarity and fellowship will be continued and sustained on a regular basis until divisive agents of violence and lawlessness are disappointed and exposed.

This past week, on our own university campus, we invited  major religious leaders for a dialogue-including a representative of our local traditional leader, the Lamido, and Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI) as well as the Christian Association of Nigeria, (CAM).

Senior business leaders came as well as union representatives, government and other academics, representatives of  the Nigeria Police Force, State Security Service, Muslim-Christian Forum, the Muslim Council and the traders’ associations. All were in attendance as we crowded together in one of our conference rooms.

We decided to create what we are calling the Adamawa Peace Council. After four hours of sincere and open discussions about the things that could divide us, we decided to work together to build a community based on peace and harmony.

We identified some of the root causes of violence and distrust~ unemployment, poverty, inadequate security, depletion of cultural values, unchecked movement of persons via the border posts, political divisions and lack of information.

We agreed that over the long run we needed to work together on joint projects such as~ public forums on the basis for conflict and strategies to develop our society, literacy and enlightenment programmes in the community, inter-faith, social and economic programmes, and community scholarships for indigenous students.

The Peace Council agreed unanimously in its first meeting to release a statement to the press and the country:
The individuals at today’s meeting, representing various religious groups, government, business, police and other security agencies and academia strongly condemn the killings in Adamawa State last week

Last Friday, a text message circulated widely saying that there would be a “jihad” against Christians after Friday prayers.  To assure people that the text messages were an attempt only to generate fear, the executive committee of the Adamawa Peace Council –Muslim and Christian leaders, as well as AUN leaders, went on a statewide TV and radio station to calm nerves. It is credited with helping to keep peace in our community.

Clearly, Nigeria is experiencing major challenges. It is one of the fastest growing countries in the world-with its population doubling  every 23-25 years. Because of this rapid population growth it has a very youthful population. Access to high quality education and health care is very limited- especially in the North.

Power and infrastructure are inadequate for the current-much less the growing population.  Government has not responded with widespread solutions to these problems. These problems are not unique to Nigeria. They are the ones faced by every country that is poor and trying to improve the well being of its citizens at a time of global recession.

Nigeria has many problems. At the moment religious intolerance is not one of them. We all pray that the inaccurate reporting does not fuel fear, hatred and more deaths. We all hope that the story of faiths coming together in harmony and support is recognized and celebrated.

Dr.  Ensign is the President, American  University of Nigeria

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