Nigerian Bishops Urged to Defend Religious Liberty

Pope Opposes Forced Imposition of Islamic Law

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VATICAN CITY, APRIL 23, 2002 (Zenit.org).- John Paul II encouraged the Catholic Church in Nigeria to defend religious liberty "courageously and forcefully" in face of fundamentalism, and to promote dialogue with Muslims.



The Holy Father was addressing Nigeria´s bishops over the weekend during their quinquennial "ad limina" visit to Rome, at the height of the debate over the Islamic law enforced in 12 northern states.

"There are certain parts of the country where proponents of Islam are acting with ever greater militancy, even to the point of imposing their understanding of Islamic law on entire states within the Nigerian Federation and denying other believers the freedom of religious expression," the Pope said.

"I strongly encourage and support your every effort to speak out courageously and forcefully in this regard," he continued.

"Government leaders, both local and federal, as well as people of good will of all persuasions, must be reminded of the obligation of every government to ensure that the equality of all citizens before the law is never violated for religious reasons, whether openly or covertly," the Holy Father said.

Nigeria´s population is half Christian, half Muslim. Its 250 ethnic and linguistic groups coexist in 36 states.

"Accordingly, even in cases where a special juridical position is granted to a particular religion, there always remains the duty to ensure that the right of freedom of conscience is legally recognized and effectively respected for all citizens, and also for foreigners residing in the country," John Paul II explained.

However, after reading the reports presented by the Nigerian bishops, the Holy Father said that, despite the difficulties, progress has been made in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims, as well as between Christians and other religions.

"Indeed, the cultural heritage of the numerous ethnic groups present in Nigeria must be seen as a source of enrichment for the nation, not a cause of conflict and division," the Pope stressed.

"I am aware that, in view of the general elections scheduled for the coming year, you are seeking to intensify ecumenical and interreligious cooperation in order to help politicians, traditional rulers and religious leaders to work together in order to ensure a free, proper and peaceful electoral process," he concluded.