Africana Plus

No49 March 2002.2

Is this a Religious or a Social War ?


Despatch - A police spokesman said that there have been renewed interrigious clashes in the northern state of Kaduna after the establishment of the Islamic Law on 2 November. There were eleven deaths and dozens of injured. Last year the first attempts to impose the Sharia had led to two series of riots and hundreds of deaths in Kaduna. The latest outbreaks took place in the district of Sanga, which has a Christian majority, in the south of the country. Most of the fights were between young Muslims and Christians.

Despatch - Violence broke out in the town of Osogbo, in the State of Osun, S.W. Nigeria, on 30 November. Religious differences were the pretext. A group of Islamic extremists, estimated to number about 500, made several attacks which led to the death of a young man and the sacking of some fifteen places of worship. The fundamentalists first destroyed the churches of different Christian denominations and then went to the house of a Protestant pastor. They dragged his son of 24 out of the house and strangled him. They then went to another section of the town and set fire to several other churches.

Despatch - On 14 January the hearing of the appeal of the 35-year-old Nigerian woman, Safiya Husseini Tungar-Tudu, sentenced by an Islamic tribunal in Sokoto to be stoned to death "for adultery", was postponed until 18 March.

Ethnic and religious violence has been responsible for thousands of deaths in Nigeria over the last twenty years. The Nigerian constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all citizens, but during the last two years a dozen States have adopted the Sharia law, against the advice of the federal government and of the Christian community. So far President Olusegun Obasanjo has not dared to open a debate on this practice, which is concentrated in the north of the country where Muslims have a strong majority. This failure on the part of the President and the Nigerian political establishment has been attributed to fear. Open discussion of the question would risk exacerbating the tensions between the religious groups and might even lead eventually to civil war.

Nigeria has 150 million inhabitants and is the biggest democracy in Africa. It has a wealth of resources, human, material and mineral, and an abundance of oil. There are more than 36 universities in the country and about 60 polytechnics, colleges and different professional institutions. With all this, ethnic and religious conflicts are raging.

Is it another war of religion? Or is it the work of a few fanatics who think that returning to the teaching of the Prophet means flogging, stoning and beheading? Are there in the Muslim world no authorized and respected voices that can silence these extremists?

The composer Rodolphe Mathieu said that religion is a lamp, which goes around the dark places of the earth, but it only succeeds in giving light to those whose prejudices it confirms. It is of course true that every religion is in danger of turning into fanaticism. It often seems to be a matter of individual temperament. History has shown that the adherents of monotheistic religions are capable of excesses of all kinds. It is true there are Christian fundamentalists, especially in the United States, and Jewish fundamentalists in IsraŽl and occupied Palestine, where there is frequent violence. Nevertheless there is no denying that in our day it is in Muslim countries that terrorist incidents are most common.

The message of Assisi on 24 January 2002 included this passage. "Confronted with the violence which in our day is raging in so many parts of the earth, (the religious representatives) feel the need to point out that religions are in fact an element of human solidarity. They deny and disown those who make use of the name of God for purposes and with methods which are in fact an offence to Him." The image of religion projected today by several Muslim countries is so negative that the Organization of the Islamic Conference decided, in a meeting last April, to set up a department of communications to "repair" the damage caused to the image of Islam in the world. We may recall the verse of the Koran, which makes freedom of conscience an obligation: "There must be no compulsion in religion." (2, 256)

Gandhi said: "If a Christian came to me saying that he was full of enthusiasm for the Bhagvat and wished to convert to Hinduism, I would tell him to do nothing of the kind. I would tell him that the Bible can offer him as much as the Bhagvat. His mistake is that he has not really tried to discover it. Make this effort, I would tell him, and be a good Christian."

Last April the Catholic Bishops of Indonesia offered this message to their faithful: "We must get rid of all prejudice against people of another religion or group of any kind. If we do not want them to nurture prejudices against us, then we must have none against them. We have to cure our hardness of heart and purify our spirits of all mistrust and prejudice. As St Paul recommended: 'Do not allow yourself to be overcome by evil, but conquer evil with good.'" (Rom. 12, 21)

Last September the Pope spoke to Christians in Kazakhstan and said that Jesus proposed to us "the logic of love". He was speaking especially of being generous to people in need, and this is surely a kind of logic which can bring Muslims and Christians together to construct a "civilization of love". The logic of love goes far beyond all worldly tricks and enables us to make real friends who will eventually welcome us into eternal dwellings. (Luke 16, 9)

"I desire to reaffirm," said the Pope, "the respect of the Catholic Church for authentic Islam: Islam which prays and which recognizes its solidarity with the one who is in need. Mindful of the errors of the past, including the recent past, all believers must unite their efforts to prevent God from being taken hostage by the ambitions of men. Hatred, fanaticism, and terrorism profane the name of God and disfigure the authentic image of man."

The Pope's directive to the Nigerian Bishops must be adopted by all Christians as the formula for their relations with Muslims: "to work together for the perfecting of humanity and to seek together a real peace."

According to the Nigerian Bishops, including Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, religion is only a pretext for violence. The real problems are not religious but political, social and economic. However, says the Archbishop, there are people who are real fanatics, but when they talk of "Christians" and "Muslims" they do not really know what they are talking about and they simply use the religious mask to aggravate the situation. "We know very well," he said, "that the rich West is not governed by a Christian spirit. It is not a question of Christianity and Islam. Indeed, if we are going to talk about Christianity, we might have to say that Christians should be fighting against this unjust Western world. The Holy Father himself has declared: that the division between rich and poor is not the will of God. We may take as an example the 'smart' missiles which it costs millions of dollars to explode in the desert. The cost of one of these missiles would allow me to build at least twenty hospitals in Nigeria. Is all this not madness?"

Such is the opinion of the Archbishop who, it may be noted in passing, was born a Muslim. Like the Nigerian Church in general, he tends to play down the religious factor in the violence. Perhaps he is trying, like a number of other Bishops, to save the values of good neighborliness which have enabled the Catholic Church in Nigeria to remain closer than other churches to the Muslim authorities. There are so many factors in the violence: religions, tribes (especially the hostility between the Hausa and the Ibo), north-south rivalry, and the whole history since colonization. Under the British, certain groups with Muslim majorities were given special privileges and were enabled to dominate the less fortunate. These privileged groups now feel threatened by those who are demanding justice, and this means especially Christians. The introduction of the Sharia law into various northern states is intended to reinforce the actual religious and social privileges of certain ethnic groups.

How can one put an end to this situation? To avoid further violence, there should be a "Forum", open to all the social and political forces in Nigeria, where new rules of co-existence can be defined. Most Nigerians, whether Christian or Muslim, want peace. The Bishops consider that the imposition of the Sahria in these northern states is a "flagrant violation of the human rights of non-Muslims in a multi-religious and lay State like Nigeria." The adoption of Islamic law is "a gravely irresponsible act on the part of politicians who are using religion to advance their own interests and to foment violence in the population." The Bishops believe that the political class has enormous responsibilities, because there is a link between violence and what has become systematic injustice and corruption. The Bishops declare: "If we want peace, we must work for justice." Christians who resort to violence must "return to Christ", and Muslims must "return to Allah and accept the genuine precepts of Islam which means peace."

A recent letter from the General Council of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) affirmed that peaceful and harmonious co-existence between peoples of different beliefs is possible. It exists in several African countries in which the missionaries work. "There may be similar places in which, as in certain corners of Africa, people of different religious beliefs live peacefully side by side, sharing the joys and sorrows of life. This is Good News." The Missionaries of Africa can bear witness to the world that such a state of affairs is a reality. "Our dream is to see the Africa of tomorrow play a leading role in the world to bring about peaceful and constructive interreligious co-existence."

One of the preoccupations of the Missionaries of Africa is to favor the dialogue already begun between Muslims and Christians in places where they live side by side. Such a dialogue however demands a clear perception of the cultural and religious realities lived by Muslims. Dialogue should tend, as far as possible, to spiritual encounter in which each partner feels responsible for the spiritual advancement of the other. This attitude supposes a recognition of the freedom and interior responsibility of each human person in his relation with God and in his spiritual pilgrimage. Each, guided by the Spirit, will discover how to live his faith in daily life in a way that enables him to enter into communion with the other.

Michel Fortin, M. Afr..

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