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Nigeria: Radical Islam and the challenge of dialogue
ďThe religion isnít the problem but the ignorance!
An interview with the Archbishop Ignatius A. Kaigama of the Archdiocese of Jos.
Q) Nigeria, one of Africaís most populous nations is a country characterized as a patchwork of different ethnic and religious groups, somehow artificially united during the British colonial rule. Still, today the country suffers religious and ethnic strife. The Nigerian constitution formally guarantees freedom of religion and worship and even forbids the adoption of a state religion, although it is clear that Islam is generally favored over Christianity.
A) Jos lies in the centre of Nigeria with a population of 3 million, of which 500,000 are Catholics and itís an area known for its tensions between Christians and Muslims.
Q) There has been, definitely tensions between Christians and Muslims in the northern part of Nigeria and recently in the middle part of Nigeria, which is where Jos lies. What is at the root of this problem?
A) I believe itís a feeling that one religion must be greater than the other. There is this propaganda of both Islam and Christianity; every religion wants to control, more or less, the whole system and therefore there is that competition, and when the Sharia, for instance, was introduced recently, the Christians felt threatened and since the introduction of the Sharia in its present form, there has been great tension, there has been an uneasy relationship and this has erupted into violence sometimes. These are testimonies to the fact that there have been a lot of religious crises in Nigeria and most of these have occurred in the north. And since the introduction of Sharia these crises seem to come again and again.
Q) What is the concern of Christians with the introduction of Sharia law in Nigeria?
A) The Sharia as introduced recently is a bit different from what it used to be. Sharia has been in existence in Nigeria and yet Christians and Muslims lived peacefully and co-existed well. Ever since the introduction of Sharia recently, Christians felt threatened because Christians in these areas are in the minority and they have lost much. If, for example, your business is selling drinks, the Sharia does not allow that, so you lose your business. Even the mode of dressing and freedom of worship and religion is threatened so Christians have a reason to be very worried and that is why some have left the area of their residence and some have closed business because some of them were not sure what was going to happen. Violence could erupt at any moment and so to prevent that, they have left and closed business - that is how it has been.
Q) I think in the Zamfara State, for example, it is such that men and women are obliged to travel on separate public transport and the dress code is Islamic. So, there is a real social pressure that is applied (to Christians) with the Islamic law?
A) Definitely. I mean if you have to get transport, then they tell you to get the next one because it is carrying women or carrying men it becomes a problem; and when social amenities are not easily available, it complicates life. I think it has really created serious tensions because people, after having worked hard would want to go and recreate: they want to go to the cinema, they want to go and have a little drink and you are told that it is not feasible within the setup and life becomes very boring and as I say, violence can easily erupt in such a circumstance.
Q) In the southern part of Nigeria where it is still predominantly Christian, it is possible for a Muslim to convert to Christianity; but in the North, it is not possible for a Muslim to convert to Christianity. What happens? Iím a young man, I come to you, I want to convert to Christianity in northern Nigeria. What could happen to me if I try to undertake this step?
A) Actually I have encountered young men who came to me to ask for help: they are young Hausa or Fulani Muslims who came and said: look we are Muslims but we feel like we want to become Christians. And they tell you in addition that their life has been threatened. Theyíve been thrown out of their homes and if they are found, they are killed, and they ask you for help. It is not always easy because when you accept such a person you yourself are in danger of being attacked. So we try to actually separate the genuine aspirants - because somebody could come just because they want to infiltrate. So once we are sure that there is a genuine case we try to help. In many cases I ask my catechists to come in and assist them in their journey and it has worked, but in some cases you know they have some other reasons that are not all together very clear, so you try to tell them: look you can go back to your religion and still be a good Muslim and everything will be fine and that is when you discover that they have some other ulterior motives.
Q) Why is it that events on the international level are reproduced so violently - or the repercussions are so violent in Nigeria?
A) Ignorance, I believe. We were all shocked to hear that there had been terribly violent demonstration against the cartoons in Denmark. We though that it had nothing to do with us, but I said, perhaps because of ignorance; intolerance brings about this [violence]. We have been living together for a long time and there has never been any serious case of religious violence. Suddenly it erupted. And we keep on asking ourselves, why? Are you sure this is religion? There could be some other motives, perhaps, politicians want to have their way and the best way to go about this is to use religion as a weapon and this has happened. Sometimes there are economic factors that create this tension, like youth who are unemployed and they find a way of reacting to certain things that really does not concern them. So I find it hard to believe that religion could bring about this kind of terrible violence and distraction. Ignorance, and then, perhaps, religion being used as a political or ethnic weapon by some personalities, could also be a reason.
Q) Over 300 churches have been destroyed in the 4 years if I understand correctly. How are Catholics able to live their faith in this context?
A) Well, you just have to live one day at a time and learn to survive. I donít believe that all these attacks and persecutions will make us deny our Lord Jesus Christ or deny our faith; life must continue. When a church is destroyed you gather the pieces and continue. Right now as I talk to you I have so many churches in the Jos Archdiocese that have been destroyed. We have been struggling for the past 5-6 years to rebuild them. So you can destroy the churches but you canít destroy the Christian spirit in us, and this is what we continue to do. We tell our Christians to stand up for your faith. We encourage our Christians to avoid revenge, to avoid violence; we always preach the culture of non-violence, and that is what our faith calls us to. This is what our Lord Jesus Christ invites us to; to offer the other cheek and we continue to offer, perhaps the stomach, perhaps the leg, we continue to offer but that doesnít mean that Christians are stupid. We know what we are doing. It is for the common good and we have not to respond in kind. If we fight, attack and kill the whole place would be set on fire. So we propose dialogue as a viable option.
Q) You mentioned the fact that youíve been working to reconstruct churches but even this is a challenge. Youíre not able to get the building permits. How is the situation with the local government in your area for example?
A) It is not a problem in my Archdiocese because we have a strong Christian element, but if you move to areas like Kano or Sokoto you do not easily get a permit to build a church. They may allow you to build a hospital, clinic or school because it renders social services to the people. When you talk of building a church they think that you are there to propagate your Christian faith and that is resisted. So directly or indirectly you are being denied to access to land or to build freely in order to bring people together to worship. This is definitely a reality. Churches have been built in Kano for instance in the night and some villagers come to destroy them and you have to start all over again. So there is a problem but that doesnít dampen the Christian spirit in us.
Many Christians of course, out of fear of this recent spate of violence have packed their belongings and left for the south. Is this a threat for Christianity in the north of Nigeria that so many Christians are living?
Yes, some Christians from the south who live and work in the north return home when there are such crisis and this because when their businesses are destroyed, their houses are destroyed they have no reason to stay on, but that does not mean that Christianity is dead in the north because you still have the indigenous population. For instance in Kano, you have the Maguzawa ethnic group, they are Hausas and normally everybody would expect a Hausa man to be a Muslim. They are not. They are adherents to the traditional religion and when they are not adherents of the traditional religion they are Catholics, Anglicans or whatever. So they are there. They donít migrate. The only problem is that they suffer a lot because of their Christian identity and Christian faith. They are denied education. They are denied government employment of the highest ladders; they are employed as night watchmen, cleaners or things like that but never higher than that. And this what they suffer for being Christians and the Church has come helping in a very decisive manner by empowering these people, by starting primary schools, again building bush chapels in order to bring them together to bring awareness, and enlighten them and get them going. And it is working. Now, I can tell you that there are 5 or more people from those ethnic groups that have become priests and they are working very well. This is to tell you how far we have come and that even though the Catholic Church has been persecuted there are people who live there and still are ready to sacrifice everything in order to proclaim their Christian faith and identity.
Q) You have written a book called ďThe Dialogue of LifeĒ in which you express the hope that the dialogue of life will be a tool with which to unite Christians and Muslims. What is the ďDialogue of LifeĒ?
A) Well as different from the theoretical and intellectual interaction, I propose a dialogue of life as crisscrossing both Christians and Muslims living together in a way that they interact on a day-to-day basis. They are together in some social engagements. They are together and we are not just talking about theory; for the activities that happen everyday in their lives they are together. Is it marriage celebration? Is it graduation? Is it some conferment of chieftaincy title on a particular individual? You come together to celebrate. So I want to see that as the way out. When you touch my life as a Muslim and I touch yours as a Christian, I think something is happening and I believe that is what can bring more understanding and create an atmosphere of peaceful co-existence. I believe in the dialogue of life, not in the dialogue in the theoretical sense but as it affects life in the day to day existence.
Q) Is it working?
A) Itís working: that is why I produced that little book on the dialogue of life. If you read through it is about my experience of reaching out to Muslims and it has worked. Let me take the Emir of Wase who in recent times has become my friend. He is the president of the Muslim in the Plateau State. He is a powerful Emir, and since I became Archbishop we have been working together. Iíve visited him a number of times. Recently I celebrated my priestly Silver Jubilee and he was there well represented. He even sent a donation of a big cow. Now, how did this happen. People will see and say: They are great friends. This is because I went to him. He came to me. I visited on a Sallah day (Islamic celebration) in his own home with his own people. I was there, brought a number of priest and sisters and Christians. We went to greet him and show him we were friends, and he reciprocated. When I got a letter from the Vatican about the Sallah celebration I took a copy to the mosque. There again I invited a couple of Muslims; they came and I presented the Popeís letter to them and they were so happy that we were coming to them. The following year they came to me in my office to greet me for Christmas. So you can see that we are making headway. Recently I was a guest of the Emir of Wase again. I stayed for 2 days in his house. He offered me accommodation and discussed so many things. We visited around the villages to preach the message of peace and peaceful co-extistence between Christians and Muslims, and I think it is working.
Q) You have a favorite Bible passage which is Philippians 3:10. Why is this Bible passage so important to you?
A) Well, we should share and participate in the sufferings of Christ so that we can share in His resurrection and that incidentally is my Episcopal motto: Per Crucem ad Dei Gloria Ė Through the cross to the glory of God. I believe that after you have suffered, after you have been persecuted, after you have suffered so many challenges that you can rise to Godís glory and just like Christ, He had to suffer. He had to die. He had to suffer a great deal for us and He rose to glory. I believe that nothing comes easy. My relationship with Muslims does not come easy. My pastoral work is full of challenges. When I go out in the field, I see people suffering. I see people hungry. I see people sick. I see people deprived of basic necessities. I see people suffering injustice. I want to identify with them and that is why as a pastor I go out and stay with them. I drink their dirty water. I eat their food to share in their agony and sorrows, and I believe that there is a reward for that. When we suffer for Christ I believe there is a great reward waiting, and we should not regard suffering as a condemnation by God but a challenge and a pathway to glory.
This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
On the Net:
For more information: www.wheregodweeps.org
The entire interview from which this text was adapted: http://www.wheregodweeps.org/nigeria-radical-islam-search-for-dialogue/
Q)Following the publication of the cartoons and the riots that occurred in Nigeria, a very much beloved priest, Fr. Michael Gajere, was killed. Can you tell us what happened there?
A)The crisis began, I was told, following a very peaceful gathering to protest the cartoons published about the prophet Mohamed - and that it was in the presence of security men and then suddenly it erupted into violence. Before you knew it, churches have been burned, and Christian shops, business, and homes burned. And then Fr. Michael Gajere who was the director of Justice and Peace in the Diocese of Maiduguri happened to be home at that time with a number of children. Before he knew it, he was surrounded by the hooligans who had come to attack the church and its property. He was in with some children and for over 2 hours he was calling for help and help wasnít coming. There is a police barracks a stoneís throw away and nobody responded to his cries for help. The hooligans got in, found him there; the children were able to escape over the walls and Fr. Michael was there alone. He was hacked to death. A tire was put on his neck and they poured petrol on him and set him on fire. It is the most brutal murder ever and I canít understand how religion could motivate somebody to do a horrible thing like that. It was terrible, not only did he die but many Christians died. Many churches were burned and destroyed beyond repair.
Q)Not all the Muslims obviously took part in these attacks against Christians. Can you tell us about these Muslims who defended the Christians?
A)These are very good Muslims who are broadminded and are able to embrace people of other faith and who work peacefully and harmoniously together. These are Muslims who come out and challenge as well as attack this kind of behavior; killings that have no reason whatsoever. So they are there in good number and these are the Muslims that we want to ally with, we want to work with in the area of dialogue, peace building, and conflict resolution, and I think we have them in good numbers. We just have to work with them. We shall overcome this senseless destruction of life and property at the slightest provocation. In this case there was even no provocation. The provocation was in far away Denmark, and here it affected innocent people; a priest who was solving community problems, bringing help to the disadvantaged, to the poor and the abandoned and he is killed; this priest was offering a very useful service to them also because he was very known in that environment and only because of a cartoon you kill and destroy such an innocent person is an abominable thing.
Q)One response of the Catholic Church has been to build bush chapels. What are bush chapels and what is the significance to have the presence of a chapel in an area?
A)In places where people lack social amenities: they lack the presence of government, they lack all the basics of life, God becomes their hope and only hope. When we come as instruments of God and we come as agents of evangelization, they embrace us whole-heartedly. The presence of a bush chapel in a particular village is a rallying point. The chapel actually empowers the people because that is where they gather to pray and discuss their common problems, and when you have a chapel you are empowering the people. You are strengthening their spiritual life and then you are creating an opportunity for them to meet in order to share, to interact, and resolve some social problems. So the presence of a church is so significant that in the smallest village where they donít even have homes, they only have grass houses and all that, they are prepared to sacrifice all in order build a church and to have the priest or a catechist to come and say services for them. So it matters a lot that every village has a little place where they can worship.
Q)Archbishop, what would be your appeal to the international community and the universal Church?
You know that in Africa, so far we have basic problems like hunger, poverty, sickness, illiteracy, and all these. Our governments have not been up to their responsibilities. There is massive corruption to the extent that these basic services that should be available to the people are grossly lacking. The Church comes in powerfully not only with the message of God but also a social message. We donít just preach to people who are hungry, helpless, and defenseless. We try to see in what ways we can help them in practical terms and this is where we appreciate the help from agencies such as this, from missio, and miserio and all. They have been fully behind us and supporting us to reach out to the unreachable - to reach out to the abandoned, the poor and the helpless. We hope that the secular governments and the international community will be able to do something along similar lines. There is so much hopelessness in Africa and yet we feel that people ignore what is going on there. It is the Church that feels. It is the Church that responds to this situation of hopelessness. We want to see the governments either in Europe or America to respond decisively. We are our brotherís keepers and I believe that the resources of this world have to be shared in a way that we are all happy. Why do Nigerians wish to migrate to Europe? Why do Nigerians in the thousands wish to migrate to America? It is because they want a better life. Why canít this better life made available to us in Africa? The fact that we donít enough food is not our fault. The rains donít come and even if the rains come, we do not have the farm implements; the equipment to do good farming. In Europe and America people are blessed. Why canít they share? I believe that if they take a cue from what the Church is doing, the help they give will reach the unreachable; unfortunately help that is rendered to governments doesnít reach the people that should receive this help. There is so much corruption in government that the people do not get to see the help that is given in their name, but with church organizations; you give me a million naira now, Iíd go and dig a well for the people to have good water to drink. You give me 2 million naira, I build a clinic and people are attended to in their basic sicknesses and so on. I think if we decide to reach out in this manner globally, I think there will be no hunger. There will be no disease. There will be no cases of migration. You know you find Africans migrating to Europe and dying in the seas, dying in very terrible situation. This will not happen. So I just hope that we have one world were there is freedom, where there are people satisfied with their basic needs and it will go a long way in creating a new humanity.
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