Catholic Archbishop John Cardinal Onaiyekan of Nigeria addressed the prospects for interfaith relations in the oil-rich African nation, which is in the midst of an ongoing civil war that pits government forces against Muslim terrorists known as Boko Haram. Speaking at a conference of Catholic bishops in Germany, Cardinal Onaiyekan called upon the leaders of Islam to work towards peace. Nigeria has seen multiple incidents over the last several years of terrorist bombings on churches, schools, and Christian individuals who have been targetted by Boko Haram, which seeks to impose an Islamist state on the multi-ethnic, multi-religious country.
In some instances, Christians and others have engaged in reprisals against Islamist terror. Speaking to the subject, the cardinal said, “This now demands that we update our general perception of religion and violence in Nigeria. It is noteworthy that, beyond verbal tirades by some pastors, so far I am not aware of any violent groups claiming Christian inspiration. This seems to me to put a significant responsibility on our Islamic community to do more about “reining in their mad dogs.” It is not immediately clear how much they are doing in this regard.”
One of Boko Haram’s demands is that Nigeria should impose “Sharia,” or Muslim religious law, universally. Cardinal Onaiyekan spoke about the need for national integration retaining one legal system which does not give preference to any particular religion or group of people. “The role and place of the Sharia in its many forms have been a matter of much debate and strong controversy in Nigeria. This is a major part of the problem of national integration mentioned above.”
More than 500 Catholics have been killed and 20 Catholic churches and church properties destroyed since 2009 by Boko Haram, a terrorist sect of Islam. These acts of violence occured in the northeastern sector of Nigeria. (Ed. note: This is according to a report by the Fides news service, which quoted Catholic Bishop Oliver Dashe Doeme of Maiduguri).
Cardinal Onaiyekan said, “All this seems to me to have exposed deeper factors often ignored or taken for granted which we now must face. It is not enough to hope to go back to the status quo ante. There are issues that we should dig up and address if we are to achieve genuine and lasting religious harmony in Nigeria.” He added, “One lesson we should have learnt from the Boko Haram tragedy is that we should not encourage extremist and divisive religious attitudes in our community. In a multi-religious nation such as ours, we will do well to fashion our laws in such a way that every citizen is at home and equal before the same law of the land. This can be achieved respecting two complimentary principles, with a minimum of good will.”
Cardinal Onaiyekan said that the law of the land should not enforce every religious injunction, nor should there be legislation against any religious prohibition, so long as no one is forced by law to carry out such an action. Showing the way to peace, the clergyman said, “I am among those who believe that our country will not enjoylasting religious peace if we do not work towards the principle of “one nation one law”, and gradually leave religious laws to the religious communities to handle.”
Cardinal Onaiyekan brought up such issues as conversion across religious lines, as well as mutual respect among religions. These issues, he said, must be addressed before Nigeria can boast of genuine religious harmony and peaceful coexistence. Concluding, he said “What it means is that we need to insist on our rights and the rights of others in this regard. In Nigeria, a majority religion in one place is a minority in another. It is therefore in the ultimate best interests of everyone if we all defend and uphold the rights of each to religious freedom, the second most important right after the right to life itself. This is the way of the future. Our nation cannot afford to lag behind.”
Contacted by Spero News, Nigerian-American attorney and human rights activist Emmanuel Ogebe wrote in an email, “It is refreshing that Cardinal Onaiyekan has finally come to the realization of what his congregation and Christians in Nigeria are going through. Following his unfortunate remarks in Washington in 2012 that he personally did not ‘feel persecuted’ at a time when just one Catholic Diocese in northern Nigeria reported that 50 out of 51 of its churches were destroyed, it appears his Eminence is no longer out of touch with the reality and severity of persecution in northern Nigeria. Indeed that same year, more Christians were killed in northern Nigeria than the rest of the world combined! It was such lack of empathy that led to his ouster as president of the Christian Association of Nigeria.”
Ogebe frequently travels to Nigeria, having been there most recently to participate in the memorial Mass held in March 2014 at St. Finbarr's parish – where a suicide bomber killed 13 persons in 2012. Continuing his remarks about Cardinal Onaiyekan, Ogebe wrote “It is hoped that this admission marks the beginning of a new Christian cooperation and unity to ensure genuine constitutional safeguards that guarantee equality and religious freedom as well as practical implementation of these creeds and a concerted approach to isolate the extremists elements unleashing genocide on Christianity in Nigeria.”
Since the beginning of 2014, Boko Haram has conducted a number of raids. Boko Haram attacked a school in the northeastern state of Yobe, where the Muslim marauders killed more than 40 students at the government-operated Buni-Yadi college. In the February 25 attack, Muslim terrorist spared girls but set a dormitory alight and burned to death the boys sleeping there. Those managing to escape the flames were mercilessly killed.
Commenting about the cardinal’s remarks, Ogebe said, “…Cardinal Onaiyekan's reference to clashes between Muslims and Christians snowballing into Boko Haram is regrettable. Boko Haram is a self-propelled and foreign-terrorism linked terror group with a genocidal theology. There is no excuse, rationale or justification for its atrocities.
On April 1, a conference held in Abuja saw debate over the dominance of Islam in the country’s Constitution of 1999, which does not mention the Christian faith. Catholic Bishop Joseph Bagobiri of Kafanchan, and Evangelical pastor Emmanuel Bosun of Ogun, described unfair treatment meted out to Christians throughout the country. Muslim delegates at the conference registered their disagreement with the Christians’ statement.
Bishop Bagobiri provided an analysis of how Nigeria’s Constitution is biased in favor of Islam. The document mentions Islam several times, yet does not mention Christianity. He argued that the adoption of a particular religion by any of Nigeria’s states must be eliminated, while arguing that Nigeria needs strict neutrality as to religion. Since Islamic courts have been established, argued the bishop, he called for the establishment of Christian ecclesiastical courts in order to ensure fairness. He said that state funding should be provided to these proposed Christian courts, as is the case with Islamic courts.
As for Pastor Bosun, he argued that the conference should address the imbalance before it destroys Nigeria. “In the 1999 Constitution, Shariah was mentioned 73 times, Grand Khadi 54 times, Islam 28 times , Muslims 10 times and there is no single mention of Christ, Christian, Christianity or church. Some mischievous elements are taking these lapses in the constitution to come to the ungodly decision that probably that the state is an Islamic state.”
“So, what are Christians doing here 100 of our churches were burnt down, Christians are being killed. In fact, it has reached the stage of genocide. I will cite one example – In one denomination in Plateau State, the Women’s Fellowship - as at 2001 had 500 registered widows and by 2008, they had 900 registered widows. By February 2014, they had 25,000 registered widows.”
A former governor of Kebbi State, Adamu Aliero – a Muslim – raised a point of order, claiming that the Christians’ statements were “diversionary” and “very sentimental.”
Bosun responded that the conference should address the religious imbalance in the Constitution, nevertheless, “so that all the citizens in Nigeria can live peacefully and live in harmony.”
Moreover, said Bosun, “If we set Nigeria on fire for whatever reason, none of us would be able to live here. We Christians do not hate Muslims. We are prepared to live together in harmony. I live in the South-West where Christians and Muslims live together and there is peace. We want to see that peace all over Nigeria- in the North, South, East and West.”