The Many Layers of Conflict

Nigerian Archbishop Says Interreligious Tension Isn’t Greatest Danger

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ABUJA, Nigeria, JUNE 20, 2011 ( The greatest source of tension in Nigeria is not between Christians and Muslims, but rather between rich and poor, says the archbishop of Abuja.

Speaking to the television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop John Onaiyekan explained that the biggest danger to peace in Nigeria «is the social injustice in the land.»

The archbishop is the past president of the African Catholic Bishops Conference and a preeminent voice calling for a greater understanding and dialogue between the Muslim and Christian community in Nigeria. He has also been calling for greater responsibility in the media in their reporting on the tensions between these two communities.

In the text of the interview presented below, the archbishop speaks in greater detail of the rich-poor divide in his country, as well as about the deeply spiritual culture of Nigerians, the «winner takes all» mentality of politics, and the keys to successful interreligious dialogue.

Q: Over the last decade approximately 3,000 people have been killed in interethnic, interreligious violence, what is the source of this violence?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: That is the bad news that lives have been lost in conflicts that have religious connotations and are often interpreted as religious. I think we have to remember that thousands of lives are being lost in my country every year due to daily deaths; those who are dying in hospitals for no other reason than mismanagement and also conflicts in areas where there are no Christians or Muslims — nobody, however, talks about these and they only focus on Muslim Christian violence.

In fact, we are talking more of a culture of devaluation of human life in general, and I say it as a Nigerian with all sense of responsibility and sadness. You have to put all that within the context. Now to talk about the 3,000 that are normally calculated as those who have lost their lives especially in Northern part of Nigeria.

Q: Around the Jos area?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: Jos area is just the last part, because there are other parts of Nigeria where we have had clashes: In the Kaduna, Bauchi and during the famous «Danish Cartoon» we had riots in Duguri and all over the place, and then the one in Jos plateau.

Jos is particularly surprising because Jos doesn’t have a big Muslim population nor indeed, is it a place where you can say that Christians and Muslims are in a very tense relationship. It is predominantly Christian and we are particularly surprised that in this place this kind of violence flares up. Secondly, whether in Jos or any other place, people don’t just attack each other only because of religion.

Q: But when we read about it, and we have read recently a lot in the news about the Christian Muslim violence, it is portrayed as precisely that: Christian Muslim religiously based violence. If not that, then what is the real source?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: There might be a religious dimension because — this is where a good thing can become bad — Nigerians are deeply religious which is a great thing. They are deeply committed to their faith which means that everything they do, they do it with religious fervor which means: when two people are quarrelling — even in the market — and one happens to be Muslim, the other happens to be Christian, before you know it they will say: «This Muslim and this Christian are fighting.» They won’t say «these two Nigerians,» as it should be, and I think this is why it is easy for this to appear as a religious quarrel.

In the case of Jos the issues are very clear: The dichotomy between those who are considered the «indigenous» of the plateau state and those who are considered as «settlers.» The problem is not so much about settlers, because there are settlers and indigenous all over Nigeria, the problem in the plateau is the situation of the settlers demanding full rights as the indigenous, a point to which I personally agree, but not only for the plateau state but valid for all of Nigeria.

Q: What other elements might come into play?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: I also want to insist that Nigerians are not just Christians or Muslim; Nigerians are also Hausa, Ibo, and Yoruba. Nigerians also have different political ideologies. And the biggest difference in Nigeria now really, and the one that causes the most problem and the greatest danger to peace in Nigeria is not the Christian and Muslim issue, it is the social injustice in the land. The big difference, the big gulf between the very few who are very rich and the vast majority who are poor in a nation that is supposed to be very rich.

The rich few, most of whom are also thieves, brigands who steal our money, corrupt people, they are Christians and Muslims who get along in the boardrooms. The poor people who are suffering are also Christians and Muslims and they get along among themselves because they have the same problems. These, I think are the things we should have to look at very, very carefully, and if you live in Nigeria you need to have this lens and not to be carried away by explanations that seems to be simple and straight forward — too simplistic.

Q: So, we can say that political success in Nigeria translates into economic empowerment or disempowerment?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: Yes, it is a «winner takes all» mentality. If you are of the party in government, you get the entire contract, promotions and your children jobs in government. If you belong to the opposition, you get nothing. So, if on top of it, you belong to the opposition party and you happen to belong to a different tribe — since the political divide often goes ethnically — and there you add on to it that you belong to another religion, it is easy to say the Christians and Muslims are fighting and that is the picture you see all over the world.

I’ve never seen a time in Nigeria where we have fought whether Jesus is God or not, which is a major theological difference between Christians and Muslims. We’ve never fought about that nor have we ever quarreled whether Mohamed is a true prophet or not. We have fought over land. We fought over pilgrimages — over whether you go to Mecca or Jerusalem. We fought over how many ministers are Muslims or Christians. We’ve fought over who is the leader of this or that political party. These are the issues that we quarrel over.

Q: This begs the question: Why is this painted as a religious issue rather than what it really is about — economic or political interests?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: This is because of the nature of the Nigerian community. We identify ourselves very easily as either Christian or Muslim. Go to Nigeria on Sunday, the churches are full. Everybody goes to church on Sunday. If you are Christian who goes to church and if you live with a Muslim and you are sitting at home on a Sunday, he will ask you «why are you not in church? What’s wrong? Do you have any problem?» And you will say the same thing to a Muslim. It is almost as if your identity is defined in terms of your religion. So whatever you do is considered Christian or Muslim.

Secondly, when two people are rivalries, you try to deploy whatever resources you have to protect your side. So if I’m fighting my fellow who happens to be a Muslim and I’m about to lose, I shall say: «Look and see how they are treating me. I’m a Christian.» I remember St. Paul when he was before the Sanhedrin, he looked around for the Pharisees among the Sadducees, and he said «I’m a Pharisee and that is why I suffer.» So the Pharisees supported him. There is a bit of that too. On the Muslim side there are those people who want to attract the solidarity of fellow Muslims not only in Nigeria but abroad. And we are seeing this happening on both sides.

But the question is then: when this kind of thing is happening not much thought is given to what is the ultimate outcome. Are we walking toward re
solving our problems and living together or are we preparing for war when we shall eventually have a head-on battle between Christians and Muslims?

Q: You mentioned of outside interests; are there outside interests provoking this and what is the interest in provoking it?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: There are many interests involved, but for me, I think, since we are talking about religious bases, there are, obviously on both sides, currents which have very strong positions against the other. There are Islamic currents who believe that Christians are evil believers. There are many people in Nigeria who watch television or who listen to sermons from Yemen that are aired by the Islamic channels; you do not have to leave Nigeria to listen to this. There are small groups who are very dangerous on both sides.

There are also Christians who say so many terrible things about the Muslims. They believe that the Muslim who goes to Mecca worships an idol, a stone, and that there is no way they can ever get anywhere near heaven because Jesus has said that unless you are born of water and Spirit, you will not enter the kingdom of God. When somebody goes out publicly and directly says that with loudspeakers towards Muslims, they get provoked — but again they are a small group. Our church does not teach that. When these exchanges clash, the rest of us are engulfed and that is a big problem. The final reason I would give is — since we are talking in terms of communication — sometimes journalists are lazy.

Q: How much responsibility can we lay at the door of the media and why?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: I think sometimes the journalists are lazy because they already have their minds fixed on what violence is occurring in Nigeria, so it is easy enough to say: «We have explained everything, it is only these Muslims and these Christians who are fighting again.» They do not take the trouble to go and find out a little bit more about the root cause of the problem. Sometimes too it depends whom you call. If you call one of these people who believe that we must rally together all Christian forces so as to deal with these Muslims once and for all, you will get that kind of story. They should say: «I have to investigate it. I have spoken to somebody in the crowd and this is what happened, but then I have to hear many voices in order to comment on the matter.»

Q: You have been quoted saying that the biblical passage Mathew 25 best expresses Christianity for you. Can you tell us how this relates to the question of dialogue between Islam and Christians?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: «I was hungry, you fed me, I was naked you gave me dress, I was a prisoner and you visited me. The man asked: ‘When did I do all that?’ Jesus answered: ‘You did it to the least of my brothers, you did it to me.'»

Now I cannot see any reason why that should be interpreted to mean: For as long as you did it the least of my «Christian» brothers. No, for me, it is the litmus test of whoever you are: If you have not been good to your neighbor you cannot claim to be pleasing to God. It is an idea that goes right through the New Testament. The way I put it bluntly to my people in Abuja is: «Listen my brothers: It is wonderful to be a Catholic and if you are a good Catholic you will have great honor in heaven, but I’m going tell you that you are not going to be asked for your baptismal card at the gate of heaven.»

In other words, Mathew 25 is not saying: «Are you baptized? What church did you belong to?» The question is going to be: «What did you do for the poor?» The parable is very powerful and I draw the attention of the politicians to it too. If you are a politician and you can feed the hungry but did nothing and you spent your time stealing the money, you will have to answer for it at the gates of heaven.

Q: You have stated that the Bible can serve of a source for a better understanding between Christians and Muslims. My question to you is: Does the Nigerian Muslim read the Bible?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: To answer your question directly, yes. In fact, Nigerian Muslims read the Bible more than Nigerian Christians read the Koran for the simple reason that many Nigerian Muslims have attended Catholic and Christian schools where they have read the Bible. Some Muslims, good Muslim students of mine, did Bible studies in their examinations and passed very well. So generally, the Nigerian Muslim is much more conversant with Christian teaching than we Christians about the Koran.

But to come to the point you make: My conviction is that the Bible should not only help us to encourage relationships with the Islamic world but also the Islamic world should give out from their own spiritual resources those things that would help to support efforts at inter-religious dialogue. I always make the claim to my colleagues and brother Muslims that if we are going to look for texts in the Bible for fighting, we have plenty also in Christianity. We only need to go to Joshua, Judges and see how God fights for His own and destroys the enemy. I can go to this text but I won’t as I have other texts, which encourages me to live in peace with everybody.

Jesus came and died for the whole of humanity, which means for me, everybody is my brother and sister. In Islam there are terrible texts in the Koran, which when interpreted means that you either convert nonbelievers or kill them. Those texts are there and an honest Muslim will tell you: «These texts give us problems.» I say: «Yes, but you also have other texts, many texts which say, there should be no violence in religion.» Even one text clearly says: «If Allah had wanted it, He would have made all of us one nation, one religion, but He has left us this way so that we can live in peace so that in the end He will be able to decide who is good.» When we meet on this basis we can walk well together without compromising our basic beliefs.

Q: So a Muslim should be a good Muslim and a Christian should be a good Christian?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: Both — in order to dialogue effectively. The question is what constitutes a good Christian and a good Muslim? But I do believe that both faiths agree that when you begin to kill each other, it is not God’s will.

Q: Although in the New Testament, the passage from the Sermon on the Mount — to turn the other cheek when slapped — is something, for example, a Muslim will not understand?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: I don’t think everybody understands that. I mean who will actually turn the other cheek? This is what is radical of the Christian Gospel.

Q: But, to understand better, for the Muslim to turn the other cheek is a sign of weakness?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: Yes, not only a sign of weakness, but it is not even good; you are encouraging the bad guy to continue to be wicked.

Q: …To do evil?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: Yes, because it is your duty to stop the bad guy from committing evil. I believe that it is also a duty of a Christian to disarm the unjust aggressor. It is our job, a right and a duty to disarm the unjust aggressor. Now how do you do it? It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to turn a bazooka and blow him to pieces if you can disarm him, but there are practical decisions that have to be taken at the spur of the moment.

Similarly in the case of Christians and Muslims, the major lesson taken from turning the other cheek is not that you invite somebody who has burned your church today to burn the other one tomorrow. No. But you are ready to forgive him. The major problem is forgiveness. Are we ready to forgive?

Q: Does the Muslim with whom you dialogue accept or understand this?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: We dialogue on a practical level. I advise them that it is not advisable to slap innocent people hoping that they will turn the other cheek. It is not advisable and even right to slap people in the first place, but if you do get slapped you should be able to know how to respond. Jesus is very just and on his Passion, the servant of the high priest slaps him saying: ‘Is this how you talk to
the high priest?’ It is interesting as Jesus says: ‘Have I said anything wrong? If I’ve said anything wrong point it out to me, if not why did you slap me?’ So Jesus gives us a good example on turning the other cheek. That shows how you make good use of the Bible text.

Q: We have spoken about the dialogue in these complicated situations. Are you hopeful?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: I’m an incorrigible optimist and I always look for the brightest in everything and also because I think that it is a Christian attitude. We believe in the resurrected Jesus and His spirit is moving us. So we have no fears, but apart from that, even looking at the reality of graft, I fiercely love Nigeria. There are so many wonderful people there. The vast majority of Nigerians, of all faiths, are wonderful people and when they see a good thing they admire it and they grab it. Our big problem is that we need a good government, a strong government that can galvanize all these wonderful things and not only the natural resources, but above all, the human resources of Nigeria. If God helps there shouldn’t be problems between Christians and Muslims. In fact, my vision is that Nigeria will be a model of Christians and Muslims living together worldwide, because our culture has the biggest number of Christians and Muslims living together in the same country. In other countries, either religion is a majority or a minority. Whatever they do, they are apart. In Nigeria we are equal and we face each other eyeball to eyeball and we are fellow citizens of the same country, sometimes members of the same family.

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This interview was conducted by Marie-Pauline Meyer 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.

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