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Christians in the Muslim World

Nigeria: Faith a "Public" Matter

Marialaura Conte

In recent weeks news about inter-religious clashes and violence have come out of your country. Can you tell us about the current situation in your diocese based on your direct experience?



Nigeria is neither heaven nor hell as your media would describe it. The West only gets news about violence and problems, nothing about everyday life, the shared moments of each day.



For example, what should we know?



You should know that in Abuja we live in relative peace among communities of different religions; that when there are religious holidays there is real exchange and mutual participation and respect among communities; that we Christians are free to publicly manifest our faith and that the same is true for Muslims; that we know the importance of not using expressions or words that can intentionally offend the faith of others.


Of course, the situation is a bit different in the villages, more difficult because things are at the mercy of local groups with a more biased vision of things, but our experience is one in which daily life is shared by all, problems and hardships included.



Is this the outcome of the joint action of the Council for Religious Affairs of Nigeria?



I think so. Joint action by the Council for Religious Affairs, which includes 25 Muslim and 25 Christian members, enabled us to make significant progress over time. For example: some time ago, during our meetings, we would hold two prayers, one Islamic and one Christian, at the start and at the end of meetings; now we only hold one prayer at the start and at the end, either Christian or Islamic, and vice-versa.


This means that when we pray, our prayer embraces everyone. When praying, the faithful, whether Christian or Muslim, pray for everyone. We do not pray together, but side by side, and yet embracing everyone.


But this situation of exchange and shared growth is also facilitated by the good relationship that exists between the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, chaired by the Sultan of Sokoto, already colonel in the Nigerian Army, and the Christian Association of Nigeria, of which the Catholic Church is a member, and which I currently chair.



Is it a joint "theoretical" action or is it about practical matters?



This culture of collaboration, which we are developing, means concrete programmes on hot issues, joint programmes in favour of the common good like the battle against AIDS or malaria, or the various initiatives to reduce childbirth maternal mortality . . . . We work together on concrete issues because when we face people's fundamental needs, differences among us fade away.


We do not try any "theological" dialogue which in our opinion would lead nowhere, but we do meet in tangible ways when we put on the line the practical implications of our faith.



In a country whose population is evenly split between Christians and Muslims, does religious affiliation have a place in public life? Or is it a private matter?



Real life provides signs that faith is not just my business, an exclusively private matter. Religion is seen as a resource that helps people live well, face with hope everyday life, find concrete ways of expressing themselves. It cannot be the cause of problems even if there are some who would exploit it in that sense. In Nigeria Christians are practicing. Only a minority of those who call themselves Christian do not go to Sunday Mass.


Here is one example of the nature of inter-faith relations. Neighbours keep an eye on each other's religious practices. If Joseph, a Christian, sees that his neighbour, Mohamad, does not go to the mosque on Friday, he will ask him why, whether he is sick or what . . . . And Mohamad will do the same if Joseph does not go to church on Sunday. It is normal here for neighbours to "keep an eye" on each other because my friend's, my neighbour's faith, also concerns me. In this sense religion is a "public" matter.



Are there any typical features to Nigerian Islam?



Islam as practiced in Nigeria, which is by and large Sunni in its various forms, is generally moderate. There are groups of extremist and violent people, among Muslims and Christians.


However, tribal affiliation comes before religion. We usually differentiate ourselves by tribe.


Sometimes membership in the same tribe favours understanding and closeness between Christians and Muslims. For example, my sister's husband is Muslim. Such closeness and kinship helps us see Muslims as fellow human beings, not as outsiders, people who are different from me, enemies.


Of course, the other side of the coin is that tribal differences accentuate religious differences.


There are ethnic groups who have a long history of never-ending conflict. But the origin of violence does not lie in different religious affiliation but in ethnicity.



Where does Nigeria fit in the overall African contest?



Ours is a special, unique situation on the African continent. Data about our population's make-up are not entirely accurate, but we are apparently 150 million, half Muslim and half Christian (20 per cent Catholic, 80 per cent Protestant: Anglican, Methodists, Baptists, Evangelical and African Churches). This even split leads inevitably to a balance that is fragile at times.


In Senegal relations are excellent but Christians represent only 2 per cent of the population and Islam can be charitable towards a minority that does a lot for the country, in education for example.


When there are problems of competition, religious differences emerge and are presented in religious terms, even when religion is not involved.


In Ivory Coast, it seems that there are more Muslims than Christians but there are also many traditional African religions that all try to convert.



Are there many cases of religious conversion?



There are a few cases, in both directions; sometimes involving entire tribes. The most aggressive sects have little success in Nigeria. In general they cause more problems than conversions as a result of their undue proselytising; their fanaticism tends to provoke rejection in people and create unease in Christian-Muslim relations.



Do Catholic schools play any particular role in your country?



There are many Catholic schools in Nigeria. The situation was particularly good before the 1970s. At that time the government left a lot of leeway to and supported initiatives by Catholic and Protestant missionaries.


Then came oil money and the government stopped working with Christians in this field. Instead it built many public schools and stopped funding religious schools, whether Christian or Muslim. This meant higher costs for "private" schools, which continued to operate anyway, albeit with higher tuition fees. Even today they are still the best; so much so that even government leaders, including Muslim leaders, enrol their children in them.


As far as we are concerned Catholic schools are open to everyone, but if a Muslim chooses to enrol his son, he must be willing to accept all our teachings, including the teaching of the Catholic faith. We do not take the back seat when it comes to our identity.



What can Old Europe learn from your experience, from the type of inter-faith coexistence you just described?



Europe must understand how important religion is for its citizens. More and more immigrants from different religious background are arriving in Europe, including Nigeria. Host countries cannot avoid the issue of religion, or remove it as inadmissible luggage brought by immigrants. These countries must realise how important faith and affiliation to a specific religious tradition are for those who leave their home to seek a future elsewhere. Those who come from afar, if they do not find someone who can look them in the face and understand their quest and need for help, will be marginalised twice over. I also say this thinking also about Christian communities and parishes in Europe.



How is the current international economic and financial crisis affecting Nigeria? Can it cause new tensions and clashes?



It certainly affects and shall increasingly affect Nigeria, but unfortunately our people have never benefited from the country's wealth because of widespread corruption among those who have been in power for all these years. Ours is a poor people and will remain very poor. If you fall on the ground, you cannot go any lower.


But what I can say is that poverty does not affect inter-faith relations. It will not be worse than before.


Of course, the price of crude oil can affect relations in Nigeria because the Islamic establishment gets a lot of help from Islamic countries thanks to the latter's petrodollars, which might dry up.



You have recently met Pope Benedict XVI. What impressed you the most in your talk with him?



The Pope asked me many questions about my country; especially about relations with Muslims. What struck me was the care and interest with which he listened to me. He encouraged me to continue the daily work with the Muslim community. It is an issue which he too considers a priority.