Getting on with Muslims in Nigeria

by
27 February 2007

Seven years ago, thousands rioted over the reinstatement of shariah law in Kaduna, Nigeria. But now green shoots are emerging in Christian/Muslim relations, Sandra Herbert discovers

Charismatic figure: the Archbishop of Kaduna, the Most Revd Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon

Charismatic figure: the Archbishop of Kaduna, the Most Revd Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon

I HAVE just returned from Kaduna, the main city in the north of Nigeria. People I knew told me this was not the place to visit: “Too many Muslims,” they said. “Far better to travel to the South, where Christians are in the majority.”
They reminded me of the violence, the burning of churches, the corruption, and the car-jacking. Kaduna was also the scene of the four-day shariah massacres, whose seventh anniversary would coincide with my visit. No one mentioned homosexuality.


I was travelling with a group from the Anglican Communion’s Network for Inter Faith Concerns (NIFCON). But, as a freelance journalist with an interest in Christian/Muslim relations, I am here to find out about the progress in interfaith work — which doesn’t often make its way into official reports or on to news agendas.


NIFCON has a remit to monitor and support Christian-Muslim relations. So the group responded positively to the Archbishop of Kaduna’s invitation to hold a consultation in his diocese, focusing on the theme of Faith and Citizenship in Christian/ Muslim contexts, including participants from Ghana, Liberia, Kenya, Sudan, Zambia, Germany, Ireland, and England.


Kaduna means “crocodiles”. Its charismatic Archbishop, Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon, often signs his name: “Josiah Kadu — the crocodile.” I begin to understand why, perhaps, when he devours the chance to be interviewed and put forward his forthright opinions.


He explains why he wanted the interfaith consultation on his patch. “The Anglican Communion does not understand the level of involvement we have in Christian-Muslim relations — especially in Kaduna, where Christians and Muslims are roughly equal in number. It educates the Anglican family to come here and meet local people, not just bishops and archbishops.”


The last inter-religious clash in Nigeria occurred in September 2006, when churches were burnt down in Dutse diocese. It was an incident, he says, whipped up by “hoodlums” after taunts between a Muslim girl and a Christian girl. As on other, similar occasions, he says, the incident flared up mainly because of ignorance about each other’s faith.

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There were no lives lost in connection with the attacks; so it is not considered a major incident. But the loss of so many churches in such a poor area, and the flight of many Christians, owing to fear, did make an adverse impact on Church’s life.


Dr Idowu-Fearon is adamant about not harking back to the atrocities of the past few years. “Rather than tell the world our ugly past, we want the world to know of the signs of hope. Some Christian leaders, in order to get sympathy from the West, are taking us back to the old stories. It hurts us: it sends out negative signals.”


But he is prepared to comment on the shariah riots, in January 2000, sparked by the reinstating of the criminal aspects of shariah law in several northern states. At the time, BBC reports stated that 2000 people died. The head of Kaduna TV, however, told me that up to 20,000 were killed.


“Some Nigerian bishops are ignorant of their country’s history, and do not understand that many northern states had always lived under some form of shariah law, as Islam was — until recently — the major religion.


During British rule, from 1914 until Nigerian independence in 1960, shariah operated in different ways across the country. A system of indirect rule allowed states in the majority Muslim north to operate shariah, but under British influence it was not always fully implemented, and there was a reduction in the application of the criminal (hadud) punishments.


The Church in Nigeria has seen massive growth. The country now has the largest number of Anglicans anywhere in the world.


Now, Kaduna state is experimenting with being “shariah-compliant”, which means that the federal law remains supreme. “We are experimenting with this here, and it is working. We have not had any hands cut off, or any Christians taken to a shariah court. This needs to be heard by the West. Even some Christian leaders are not telling the whole truth. They are exploiting the situation to get more money.”


The Archbishop is keen to speak of the pioneering work with Muslims of setting up an NGO, the Bridge Builders Association. In establishing its work, they bought air time on radio and television for phone-in programmes. As ignorance of each other’s faith is a chief cause of misunderstanding, this enabled questions to be asked in a friendly and accessible way.

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The association also paid for other programmes at special times of the year, but found it very expensive. It did, however, enjoy equal access to the airwaves: although they are state-controlled, there was little censorship.


Joint workshops were organised especially to discuss politics and social concerns. A centre for Christian and Muslim studies was set up to teach the basics of each faith, and to “help Muslims to discover the missing Christ in the Qur’an”.


Mission was still at the heart of all that the diocese did, including its work with Muslims. Despite this, it took three years for the diocese to approve the centre. Opposition came mainly from tribes in the North, where attacks on Christians have been more prevalent.

But, despite opposition, the Archbishop remained emphatic: “Some Christians try to create unnecessary false religious values. I am doing a Ph.D. in this area, and have proved that Nigerian Christians and Muslims have the same values.”

When it comes to engaging with young people, the project encounters ignorance on both sides. “We are working a lot among the young, trying, also, to give them skills. In Kaduna, we have a centre for reconciliation based at Jacaranda Farm — our diocesan project which will be a showcase for interfaith dialogue and training. We will eventually be able to have 30 Muslim and Christian young people at the centre, living together for three months, teaching them basic skills and exposing them to what they have in common.”


What about ecumenism? We stayed at a Roman Catholic guest house, and were woken most mornings by a very early mass.

But, despite opposition, the Archbishop remained emphatic: “Some Christians try to create unnecessary false religious values. I am doing a Ph.D. in this area, and have proved that Nigerian Christians and Muslims have the same values.”

When it comes to engaging with young people, the project encounters ignorance on both sides. “We are working a lot among the young, trying, also, to give them skills. In Kaduna, we have a centre for reconciliation based at Jacaranda Farm — our diocesan project which will be a showcase for interfaith dialogue and training. We will eventually be able to have 30 Muslim and Christian young people at the centre, living together for three months, teaching them basic skills and exposing them to what they have in common.”


What about ecumenism? We stayed at a Roman Catholic guest house, and were woken most mornings by a very early mass.

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But we saw no indication of any working together with Anglicans. Apart from the national umbrella group the Christian Association of Nigeria, there was very little cooperation between Roman Catholics and Anglicans.


When it comes to Pentecostal churches, whom the Archbishop nickname “Pente Rascals”, there are hundreds of different churches. Many, he says, receive funding from the United States.


“These churches are not mission-based,” he says. “They get their seedlings from us, and we resent and resist all their attempts to preach the gospel of prosperity. Nigeria is very poor, and there is a great deal of suffering. They give them the soft gospel. People then attribute good things to this soft gospel, and it attracts a lot of our members.”


On the other hand, he says, the Anglican Church has learnt a lot from Pentecostalists about freedom in worship. “Because we have incorporated this into our liturgy, we have managed to keep people from leaving.”


It is this blend of expressive worship and liturgy that we experience at Kaduna Cathedral during our stay. The service is three hours long, with much dancing and shouting, sandwiched between the familiar words of the Gloria and the Creed.


But what of the threat facing Anglicans, which has much to do with the Nigerian Church and its stand against a more liberal interpretation of the scriptures?


“When it comes to our Primate’s views on homosexuality, he does use strong language, and some of his expressions are aggressive. But we are not English, and sometimes you may think beyond what we actually intend. There may come a time when we ditch a particular word because there is no shared meaning. Maybe we are getting to that point.


“But my position is that of my Primate, and that is to maintain and promote the Lambeth resolution. When Lambeth says it is obsolete, then we decide whether we will remain as Anglicans. Every word and statement that we use is built around that resolution. Because you are English, you find our language too strong. But it reflects our passion for the Church.


“Rationalism is the sin of the West. For those who take religious values seriously, human sexuality is a key area. You cannot continue to shift your ground and explain away biblical values; and, bringing it back to Christian-Muslim relations in our context, the respect that our Muslim neighbours have for us is always dictated by our own commitment to biblical principles. That’s what’s helping the Christian gospel in this place.”

Learning to live together

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But we saw no indication of any working together with Anglicans. Apart from the national umbrella group the Christian Association of Nigeria, there was very little cooperation between Roman Catholics and Anglicans.


When it comes to Pentecostal churches, whom the Archbishop nickname “Pente Rascals”, there are hundreds of different churches. Many, he says, receive funding from the United States.


“These churches are not mission-based,” he says. “They get their seedlings from us, and we resent and resist all their attempts to preach the gospel of prosperity. Nigeria is very poor, and there is a great deal of suffering. They give them the soft gospel. People then attribute good things to this soft gospel, and it attracts a lot of our members.”


On the other hand, he says, the Anglican Church has learnt a lot from Pentecostalists about freedom in worship. “Because we have incorporated this into our liturgy, we have managed to keep people from leaving.”


It is this blend of expressive worship and liturgy that we experience at Kaduna Cathedral during our stay. The service is three hours long, with much dancing and shouting, sandwiched between the familiar words of the Gloria and the Creed.


But what of the threat facing Anglicans, which has much to do with the Nigerian Church and its stand against a more liberal interpretation of the scriptures?


“When it comes to our Primate’s views on homosexuality, he does use strong language, and some of his expressions are aggressive. But we are not English, and sometimes you may think beyond what we actually intend. There may come a time when we ditch a particular word because there is no shared meaning. Maybe we are getting to that point.


“But my position is that of my Primate, and that is to maintain and promote the Lambeth resolution. When Lambeth says it is obsolete, then we decide whether we will remain as Anglicans. Every word and statement that we use is built around that resolution. Because you are English, you find our language too strong. But it reflects our passion for the Church.


“Rationalism is the sin of the West. For those who take religious values seriously, human sexuality is a key area. You cannot continue to shift your ground and explain away biblical values; and, bringing it back to Christian-Muslim relations in our context, the respect that our Muslim neighbours have for us is always dictated by our own commitment to biblical principles. That’s what’s helping the Christian gospel in this place.”

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Learning to live together

MOTORBIKES spew out fumes, red dust rises in billows from unmade roads, and rubbish is scattered everywhere. It is hard to come to terms with the fact that Kaduna is the capital of a Nigerian state, and that Nigeria one of the world’s major oil producers.


A city accountant tells me that Kaduna’s rate of unemployment is 65 per cent, and that the average income is 7500 naira per month (£2 per day). But the people here are resilient, welcoming, and cheerful.


Even in the most miserable of settings, people dress immaculately. Men and women take incredible pride in their appearance. The Archbishop is no exception. During the consultation, he is seen in at least six different outfits.


I meet many people in Kaduna; not just priests. After the riots, Muslims and Christians retreated to their own areas. One day, a driver takes me to the Christian quarter. I am greeted on the street by a couple, Samuel and Abigail Awodimibola, who have lived in Kaduna for 47 years.


They invite me into their home, and seem eager to tell me of their experience as Christians. Joy seems to shine from their faces. Despite the recent problems with their Muslim neighbours, they have hope for the future. “We share the same values,” they say. “We have to learn to live together.”


But what of those on the front line? The Revd Joshua Mala is a young priest who was sent to


St Mark’s in the Muslim part of Kaduna. His church was burnt down during the shariah riots, and again in 2002, during riots sparked by Nigeria’s attempt to host the Miss World contest. “Christians were killed, and many others fled in fear,” he says. But the joy is this, he continues: “People are forgetting the past and returning.”


Mr Mala was one of the first students to study Islam at the Archbishop’s new centre, and he says that this has helped him. He is now involved in bringing Muslims and Christians together. “We have a school at St Mark’s, and 40 per cent of the children are Muslim. They see us as generous and not rejecting anybody.”


Conversion, however, is a sensitive issue. Many churches provide halfway houses for Muslim converts who fear for their safety. We occasionally hear the horror stories. But, in Kaduna, sometimes things are more complex. The Revd Hasan Joseph is a priest with a wide grin and a friendly face. He has lived alongside Muslims all his life, because he was brought up as a Muslim.


“I did have some diffculties when I decided to become a Christian. I was young at the time, and I remember there were some problems in my family. But they did not cast me out, and here I am, a priest today, accepted by my brothers and sisters, and all my famliy.”


Not all converts are treated like him, however; and he says that mission has to be approached with sensitivity.


There seems to be a lack of women’s voices in the interfaith dialogue. But I do find one: Jean Dupe Ollumorin, who works with Bridge Builders Association.


Mrs Ollumorin tells me that she “noses around to find conflict areas between Christians and Muslims”. As a result, she is involved in bringing together NGOs from both faiths, and arranging conflict-resolution programmes.


Bridge Builders is also hard at work getting Muslims and Christians in the political sphere to work together. “We get involved . . . as so many of the [political] parties are tied in with religion. We encourage every party to have both faiths represented on their executives.”


Nigeria has been a civilian democracy of sorts since military dictatorship ended in the late 1990s. As elections are due in April, Bridge Builders recently invited 30 political parties to meet together to promote interfaith dialogue. Twenty-two parties accepted — a first for Kaduna.


Not all Christians or Muslims in Kaduna favour the kind of interfaith work taking place here. Mr Awodimibola, however, is clear where he believes the Church’s mandate lies. “We Christians are in the business of reconciliation. It’s what our Lord requires us to do, whatever the cost.”

MOTORBIKES spew out fumes, red dust rises in billows from unmade roads, and rubbish is scattered everywhere. It is hard to come to terms with the fact that Kaduna is the capital of a Nigerian state, and that Nigeria one of the world’s major oil producers.


A city accountant tells me that Kaduna’s rate of unemployment is 65 per cent, and that the average income is 7500 naira per month (£2 per day). But the people here are resilient, welcoming, and cheerful.


Even in the most miserable of settings, people dress immaculately. Men and women take incredible pride in their appearance. The Archbishop is no exception. During the consultation, he is seen in at least six different outfits.


I meet many people in Kaduna; not just priests. After the riots, Muslims and Christians retreated to their own areas. One day, a driver takes me to the Christian quarter. I am greeted on the street by a couple, Samuel and Abigail Awodimibola, who have lived in Kaduna for 47 years.


They invite me into their home, and seem eager to tell me of their experience as Christians. Joy seems to shine from their faces. Despite the recent problems with their Muslim neighbours, they have hope for the future. “We share the same values,” they say. “We have to learn to live together.”


But what of those on the front line? The Revd Joshua Mala is a young priest who was sent to


St Mark’s in the Muslim part of Kaduna. His church was burnt down during the shariah riots, and again in 2002, during riots sparked by Nigeria’s attempt to host the Miss World contest. “Christians were killed, and many others fled in fear,” he says. But the joy is this, he continues: “People are forgetting the past and returning.”


Mr Mala was one of the first students to study Islam at the Archbishop’s new centre, and he says that this has helped him. He is now involved in bringing Muslims and Christians together. “We have a school at St Mark’s, and 40 per cent of the children are Muslim. They see us as generous and not rejecting anybody.”


Conversion, however, is a sensitive issue. Many churches provide halfway houses for Muslim converts who fear for their safety. We occasionally hear the horror stories. But, in Kaduna, sometimes things are more complex. The Revd Hasan Joseph is a priest with a wide grin and a friendly face. He has lived alongside Muslims all his life, because he was brought up as a Muslim.


“I did have some diffculties when I decided to become a Christian. I was young at the time, and I remember there were some problems in my family. But they did not cast me out, and here I am, a priest today, accepted by my brothers and sisters, and all my famliy.”


Not all converts are treated like him, however; and he says that mission has to be approached with sensitivity.


There seems to be a lack of women’s voices in the interfaith dialogue. But I do find one: Jean Dupe Ollumorin, who works with Bridge Builders Association.


Mrs Ollumorin tells me that she “noses around to find conflict areas between Christians and Muslims”. As a result, she is involved in bringing together NGOs from both faiths, and arranging conflict-resolution programmes.


Bridge Builders is also hard at work getting Muslims and Christians in the political sphere to work together. “We get involved . . . as so many of the [political] parties are tied in with religion. We encourage every party to have both faiths represented on their executives.”


Nigeria has been a civilian democracy of sorts since military dictatorship ended in the late 1990s. As elections are due in April, Bridge Builders recently invited 30 political parties to meet together to promote interfaith dialogue. Twenty-two parties accepted — a first for Kaduna.


Not all Christians or Muslims in Kaduna favour the kind of interfaith work taking place here. Mr Awodimibola, however, is clear where he believes the Church’s mandate lies. “We Christians are in the business of reconciliation. It’s what our Lord requires us to do, whatever the cost.”

Photos: Sandra Herbert

Photos: Sandra Herbert

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