Not All the Religious News from Nigeria Is Bad, Says Archbishop

Muslims and Christians Can Cooperate, Insists Church Leader

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GAZZADA, Italy, JAN. 25, 2002 ( The news from Nigeria about Islam-law death sentences for fornication overshadows the genuine dialogue between Christians and Muslims in the country, a bishop says.

Islam, which in the main is not fundamentalist, plays a crucial role in Nigeria´s democratic and peaceful development, explained Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, 57, of Abuja.

The archbishop, who is also the president of the Nigerian episcopal conference, was in Italy in recent days as a Catholic member of the Faith and Constitution international ecumenical commission. He offered this view on interreligious relations.

Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, Nigeria was shaken by disorders between Christians and Muslims. «The situation has now calmed down, but the Minister of Justice was assassinated,» the archbishop said.

The assassination motivated the archbishop to analyze his country´s political transition.

«The process of democratization was not as easy as we thought,» he acknowledged. «Contradictions have arisen, because the mentality of the political class, even if elected, is still influenced by the military dictatorship. Democratization arrived to rapidly and we were not prepared.»

According to Archbishop Onaiyekan, the introduction of Shariah, or Islamic law, is the fruit of this situation.

«Nigeria is not a Muslim state; we are half and half,» he said. «If the government had moved more decisively on this question, the Shariah would not have become the problem it is today.»

The effect it has had is to «encourage fundamentalists, who think that Nigeria should become an Islamic state,» the archbishop said. «They say this, influenced by currents of fanatics who come from abroad. There are Nigerians who have studied in international Islamic schools of a fundamentalist type.»

In this context, Christians «are trying to be more united to have a common thought in face of Islam. We discuss, above all, the need to have good government. This is why it is not a question of Christians against Muslims, but of Nigerians who want a decent country, against those who want something different,» the archbishop continued.

The episcopal conference energetically condemned the sentence of stoning meted out to Safiya Husaini, because she was pregnant outside marriage.

«We are opposed to the Shariah not only because we are Christians but because we do not think it is good for Nigeria,» Archbishop Onaiyekan added. «It should not be imposed, not even on Muslims. We say: As a Nigerian, whether Muslim or Christian, you have the same rights, which no one can deny, not even in the name of religion.»

Dialogue with Islam in Nigeria is less problematic than it seems, the archbishop emphasized.

«Abroad, Nigeria is referred to only when we kill one another, not when we live in peace,» he said. «In general, conditions are good. We have the same jobs, we live in the same neighborhoods. In some families, including mine, there are Christians and Muslims.»

He added: «We also have a Forum for the Christian-Muslim dialogue at the national level, with leaders of the two religions; it was created three years ago. The problem is not with the principal Muslim religious leaders but with the fanatics who are inciting the faithful. Sometimes, irresponsibly, politicians take advantage of them.»

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