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Tough love with Islam – Church in Nigeria may be model of dialogue

By John L. Allen Jr.

3/30/07 Nigeria For the full article (National Catholic Reporter) – On a sunny afternoon in early March, an unusual delegation arrived at Nigeria ’s National Mosque in downtown Abuja . It was composed of Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja , plus the Jesuit president of a local Catholic school and a visiting American Catholic journalist. For more than two hours, the group spoke with Abubakr Siddique Mohammed, a noted Islamic commentator, and several other leading Nigerian Muslims. The group included several Muslim women, one of whom took an active role in the back-and-forth.

Archbishop Onaiyekan and his Muslim hosts found much common ground. Yet they sparred too, especially over Shariah. One Muslim argued that since Nigerian civil law is based upon English common law, Nigerian Muslims are already subject to a Christian legal code, so it’s hypocritical of Christians to say that law and religion should not mix. When another Muslim said that Christians could take a case before a Shariah court, Archbishop Onaiyekan shot back, “That’s not a right we recognize. … It’s not a right we want.”

Always, however, the conversation was civil and deeply respectful, and both sides repeatedly returned to the need for consensus.

After the meeting broke up, one of the Muslims escorted his Catholic guests on a tour of the enormous domed mosque, just as afternoon prayers were ending. Archbishop Onaiyekan was dressed in a red-and-white clerical gown with a pectoral cross. As the group stood in the center of the mosque, a knot of men approached the guide. They angrily demanded to know by what right Christian clergy had been invited into the mosque. One of them spit out a Hausa word which means, roughly, “abomination.” Before things could get out of hand, Archbishop Onaiyekan made a quick exit.

Together, these two vignettes seem to capture the “best of times, worst of times” dynamic of Christian/Muslim relations in Nigeria . In the words of Imam Sani Isah, leader of the Waff Road Mosque in the northern city of Kaduna , Nigeria , is like “ Saudi Arabia and the Vatican rolled into one.”

In the last quarter-century, that volatile mix of highly devout Christians and Muslims has sometimes erupted into violence:

– Controversies over the introduction of Shariah left 1,000 dead in Kaduna in 2000, and 2,000 dead in Jos in 2001.

– The international “Miss World” pageant to be held in Nigeria in 2002 also caused bloodshed, when a local newspaper columnist satirically suggested that Muhammad might have taken a wife from among the contestants. A chain of attacks left hundreds dead and dozens of churches and mosques destroyed.

– In February 2006, more than 150 people were killed in violence related to the Danish cartoon controversy.

Nigerians are quick to point out that such tensions aren’t the whole story. For one thing, media attention to violence in the north overlooks the much more harmonious record in the Yoruba lands of the southwest. There, Christians and Muslims can be found intermarried, sharing the same extended families. Further, they say, violence billed as “religious” is often really a matter of tribes clashing over more concrete issues such as water or land use.

Even in the north, there are encouraging signals. In Kaduna , for example, site of some of the most savage Muslim/Christian violence, Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye have established the Interfaith Mediation Centre, where they train pairs of imams and pastors to fan out wherever violence begins to stir. Some observers credit the Interfaith Mediation Centre with helping to avert violence in Nigeria following Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial comments on Islam at the University of Regensburg last September.

Whatever rough peace exists today, however, comes with a sobering footnote. Most Christians, as well as some Muslims, believe it has been achieved in part because Christians learned to fight fire with fire – in other words, because the Christians answered violence from the Muslim side with violence of their own.

“Only when we started reacting did the Muslims see a need for dialogue,” said Saidu Dogo, general secretary for the Christian Association of Nigeria in the north. “They saw that our people have resolve, and that’s when the decision was made to form a consultative forum of religious leaders.”

That conclusion may seem abhorrent to outsiders, but Nigerians say their hard experience bears it out.

During a mid-March lunch at the Abuja residence of Archbishop Renzo Fratini, the papal nuncio in Nigeria , a visiting journalist was asked for impressions of the country. When he summarized what Nigerian Christians had told him, Archbishop Fratini expressed reservations, saying that self-defense in a Christian spirit should be nonviolent. Archbishop Onaiyekan insisted that Christians have the right to disarm an unjust aggressor, with force if necessary. Virtually every Nigerian Catholic head around the table nodded in agreement.

Archbishop Onaiyekan embodies an approach to Islam one might call “tough love.” He’s every inch a man of dialogue, as his session at National Mosque illustrates. Recently, the Catholic church in Abuja and a grass-roots body called the Muslim Consultative Forum cosponsored a panel on the 2007 elections in Nigeria . Yet Archbishop Onaiyekan also told National Catholic Reporter that he feels the church’s approach to Islam has suffered because too many policymakers had their primary experience of Islam in the Middle East , where Christians are a tiny minority, and hence mere tolerance is considered a major achievement. In fact, he said, Christians should push Muslims for much more – specifically, to recognize the legitimacy of a non-confessional state in which all religions are equal before the law.