Speaking at an interfaith conference in Italy, Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Nigeria suggested that Islamist violence in his country and Syria has been fueled by external forces. “Outside funding for Islam in Nigeria is nothing new,” remarked Cardinal Onaiyekan, who is also the archbishop of Abuja. He spoke at the tenth annual meeting of the Oasis International Foundation held on June 17. The conference brought together top Muslim and Catholic representatives to discuss the conflict between secularism and ideology in the Middle East.
 
In Nigeria, Christians and Muslims largely had coexisted peacefully until a few years ago. The militant Islamist group Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is sinful,” seeks to impose Islamic shariah law throughout oil-rich Nigeria. Founded in 2002, Boko Haram is responsible for the death of some 2,800 people since 2009, Human Rights Watch reported. The group has engaged in combat with Nigerian security forces, and also firebombings of Christian churches and homes. The group has vowed to eliminate Christians from the northern tier of Nigeria.
 
According to Cardinal Onaiyekan, Boko Haram was not initially a terrorist group. The cleric said that in its beginning, the group refused to work with non-Muslims, but that it never resorted to violence. “The problem is what kind of input they are getting with their outside links, and when they are linked to outside groups that have ideas that are leading to the problems that we have.”
 
In May, Nigeria's intelligence agency reported that it had found a weapons cache belonging to Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group supported by Iran. Three Lebanese nationals were arrested at the arms cache in Kano, located in north-central Nigeria.
 
“They have different names in different places,” Cardinal Onaiyekan said. “In the Middle East they call them al-Qaeda, in Somalia they're called al-Shabaab, in Pakistan they’re called Taliban, and in Nigeria we call them Boko Haram.” He continued, “Not even five percent of Nigerian Muslims agree with Boko Haram, and they’re worried because they’re killing Muslims, too, and giving Islam a bad name.” In recent months, Boko Haram was blamed for an attack on a Nigerian university where Christian students were beheaded when they refused to abandon their faith and become Muslims.
 
Other speakers at the Oasis conference included Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, Sami M Angawi of the al-Makkiyah al-Madaniyah Institution in Saudi Arabia, Professor Rémi Brague of Sorbonne University, and Iraqi Shia Muslim leader Jawad al-Khoei.
 
Angawi told the media that religion and secular authority should not be mixed, adding that religion “should not be imposed. Religion is like love, one cannot have it if one does not want it.”
 
Cardinal Onaiyekan noted that “those who do not respect religion, say it is not a force for good.” He said he would like to see the world “enjoy the positives fruits of different religions, admit that God is bigger than any of us, and for Christians to be free to practice their faith.”
 
“Muslims should also be free to practice their faith, remembering that they shouldn’t do anything to Christians that they wouldn’t want Christians to do to them.” Finally, the cardinal added, “We must change the way people look at their religion. We need to open up to others, admit that there are other people. Not only tolerating them, but also respecting them, because I don’t want anyone to (merely) tolerate me.”

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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