Nigeria: Half and Half, and on the Edge

Abuja´s Archbishop Views Islamic-Christian Relations

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DAKAR, Senegal, AUG. 5, 2001 (ZENIT.org-Fides).- Interreligious dialogue in Nigeria may prove to be a key ingredient for peace in Africa´s most populous country. It´s especially important since nine of the federation´s 36 states have adopted Shariah, or Islamic law.



The Vatican agency Fides spoke on this subject with Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, who was recently in Dakar for a conference of the All African Association of Catholic Exegetes.

--Q: It is not always clear what is happening in your country. What is the present situation of the Church?

--Archbishop Onaiyekan: First, I would point out that in Nigeria the population has reached the 120 million mark and that 25% is Catholic. All Christians [constitute] about 50% and Muslims the other 50%. This means that problems can arise. Relations between the two groups are often difficult.

--Q: Why?

--Archbishop Onaiyekan: I am convinced that at bottom level there are political, social and economic considerations. Too often, political leaders play on religious sentiments for obvious political reasons. Sad to say, it is very easy to influence ordinary people, especially village people who are less informed.

Fundamentalism is also a problem. We have fanatic Nigerian Muslims who study in Iran with the ayatollahs; others who are given scholarships in Libya, or Al-Azhar in Egypt. When they come back to Nigeria they present themselves as missionaries of Islam. They want to change things, to set up an Islamic society without which, they think, there will be problems. They are not numerous but they are very active.

It must also be said that some Christians tend to be very harsh in their judgment of Muslims. These people create problems too. But on the whole, most Nigerians live side by side without difficulty. For example, I am archbishop of the federal capital, Abuja. The city´s workers have come here from all over the country, from many different ethnic groups. People of different religion work together.

In my own family I have close cousins who are Muslims; we get along well.

--Q: What is the bishops´ conference doing to address the problem of religious fundamentalism?

--Archbishop Onaiyekan: Besides being the president of the Catholic bishops´ conference, I am also vice president of the Christian Association of Nigeria.

We are active at various levels. For example, there is a Nigerian Interreligious Council of 25 Christians and 25 Muslims. We meet now and again to discuss major questions of interreligious cooperation with full support of the government, which is very interested in this issue.

Besides this, we religious leaders strive to build and encourage in our own communities good relations with other believers. I myself send a message of greetings to Muslim leaders in Abuja on Muslim holidays and they do the same in my regard at Christmas and Easter.

These are little signs, but they have a great effect. We know each other well and we intend to continue this way. When problems do arise we religious leaders meet to try to find a solution: sometimes we succeed, but sometimes we fail.

--Q: Is this why you are such a strong supporter of interreligious dialogue?

--Archbishop Onaiyekan: Yes, because commitment to interreligious dialogue is indispensable. It is vital for our country.

The situation in Nigeria demands that we make our valid contribution to dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Many countries have a larger Christian community than Nigeria.

Others have a larger Muslim community. But I think Nigeria is the only one with half and half. ... In Nigeria we must do all we can to live our religious convictions together, this is important. We can show the world that Muslims and Christians can live side by side.

--Q: In northern Nigeria a number of states have adopted Islamic law. How does the Christian community live this fact?

--Archbishop Onaiyekan: We, as Christians, have said that when a state adopts the Shariah as its official law it becomes officially a Muslim state. We were told that this is only a law that is adopted. Nigeria´s federal constitution prohibits member federal states from favoring one religion to the detriment of another. Today this is the situation.

We Christians have always affirmed that the states which adopt Muslim law are in a situation of illegality, because they have acted against the constitution. We are waiting for the federal government to give us an opportunity to settle this matter, during a forum which is expected soon.

The introduction of the Shariah as the basic law creates all manner of problems. It means that Christian citizens in that state are like foreigners, second-class citizens in their own country! This is inadmissible. We hope to be able to sit around a table to discuss these difficulties. This will help to clarify the situation, something which so far has been impossible.

--Q: When do you expect to do this?

--Archbishop Onaiyekan: Soon, I hope. In my opinion the matter is entirely political, it has nothing to do with religion. As things stand, Nigeria will not achieve lasting political and religious peace unless the question of the Shariah law is settled.