Religious and ethnic tensions in Nigeria have often threatened the peaceful co-existence of Christians and Muslims. Over the years, lives have been lost and families displaced following bloody religious violence and conflicts across the country.
Catholic communities in the northern part of the country where religious conflicts have been widespread are coping amid the challenges they face. Despite threats, they live to promote peace and unity between them and their Muslim neighbors.
Nigeria, a nation of more than 200 million people, is deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. Christians live mostly in Nigeria’s south while Muslims dominate the north. In February 2000, violent crises broke out in Kaduna state and other states in northern Nigeria between Christians and Muslims following the imposition of Sharia law in some states in the region. More than 3,000 people were killed, properties destroyed and about 60,000 persons displaced.
Before this incident, violent conflicts between Christians and Muslims have often broken out in the region and the government has been unable to find a lasting solution to the religious tensions.
In 2017, in the wake of religious tension, some Muslim groups in northern Nigeria asked Christians from the Igbo ethnic group to go back to their region. In December last year, a Catholic bishop, Hassan Kukah, was threatened to leave Sokoto, a Muslim-dominated region because he criticized President Muhammadu Buhari over growing insecurity and poor leadership in the country.
According to a new report by Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List, Nigeria was the country with most Christians killed for their faith at 3,530, up from 1,350 in 2019. In overall violence, Nigeria was second only to Pakistan while trailing China in the number of churches attacked or closed at 270, according to the report.
In December 2020, the United States designated Nigeria as a “Country of Particular Concern” for religious freedom alongside China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This designation is for nations that engage or tolerate in “systemic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom” and can be sanctioned if it fails to improve its records.
Fr. Peter Bakwaph, a priest of the archdiocese of Kaduna says relations between the two religions were peaceful and cordial in the 1970s and 1980s.
“We lived together with each other and you can live in the same compound with different faiths and there would be no problem,” he said, adding that things changed for the worse after the crises of 2000.
Fr. Peter who works at Veritas University, an institution founded by the Catholic bishops, said after the crises, there was migration between the two religions and the state was divided into two – Christians moved to the southern part of the state while Muslims remained and dominated in the northern part.
“So that (crisis) has brought the division that exists between the two divides even now,” he said. “Attention is given more to the north in terms of opportunities and infrastructure than the south which develops mostly by community efforts. That has widened the gap between the two religions over the years.”
There is no cordial existence between the two religions anymore, he added. “If you are in the south as a Muslim during any uprising or conflict, your life is in the danger. The same thing for a Christian who lives in the north. There is a big demarcation between the two religions. The government is not doing enough by building the walls between the two people and working towards peace and reconciliation and harmonious living.”
In addition, religious and Islamic extremists have specifically targeted the Christian communities as a way of pushing their Islamic agenda. For instance, the Boko Haram terrorist group, which has been waging a religious war against the state since 2009, has attacked Christian communities including the bombing of St Theresa’s Catholic church where more than 25 parishioners were killed.
An estimated 36, 000 people have been killed by the terrorist group while about 2 million have been displaced.
Attempts to promote peace
After recent attacks, the Catholic Bishops of Kaduna Ecclesiastical Province visited Southern Kaduna to sympathize with the community. The bishops met with community leaders and village heads in the affected communities where they prayed and conveyed their message of peace, tolerance and hope.
This step is aimed at rebuilding the broken bridges of peace and promoting healthy inter-communal relations.
“This gesture has a far-reaching positive implication to the collective quest for peace and mutual togetherness amongst the diverse populace in the area. What we need as a people now is confidence building engagements that would aid the healing process and engender enduring unity and peaceful co-existence. This is the practical task of leaders that are worth their callings,” a statement published on the diocesan website read.
However, at the heart of promoting Christian and Muslim relationships is the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC), a nonprofit made up of 50 members, (25 Christians and 25 Muslims) and formed by the representatives of the two main religions in the country in 1999. In 2019, the membership of NIREC was reviewed to accommodate more women and youth in peace-building and dialogue initiatives. The membership now stands at 30 Christians and 30 Muslims, bringing the number to 60.
The membership of NIREC comes from the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the Nigeria Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), traditional rulers and other religious actors across southern and northern Nigeria.
NIREC was established in the wake of the incessant ethno-religious crisis across the country, especially in the northern part. NIREC provides religious leaders and traditional rulers with a variable forum to promote greater interaction and understating among their followers as well as lay foundations for sustainable peace and religious harmony in the country.
“NIREC abhors and condemns the disturbing trend of kidnapping, armed robbery, killing of innocent citizens by bandits, Boko Haram, religious and ethnic tensions, herders/farmers conflict, militancy, insurgency that are increasingly becoming pervasive in the country,” the body said in a press release. “The practices are illegal and repugnant to the norms of our religion, traditions and culture.”
To end religious extremism and conflicts, NIREC says Nigerians must continue to build an environment where prejudice, intolerance, violence and other vices shall remain alien to our culture and practices.
“Determined efforts should be made by the government and religious leaders to check the problems in order to protect the moral well-being of the people. They should douse the religious and ethnic tensions that are pervading the country. Nigerians should continue to live together and pursue the common good as a community,” the statement said.
Fr. Bakwaph agrees that dialogue and peace initiatives are being taken to unite the two religions but the outcomes have not resulted in lasting peace and unity in the region.
Religious leaders are promoting interreligious and interfaith dialogue but because this is being organized by Christians mostly, the Muslims are not really interested in these steps,” he said. “Those who instigate the religious conflicts are the educated ones among them while the illiterates and street beggars are pushed to go and cause violence and killing of Christians. So, if you are talking about dialogue, it exists but it has created little impact.”
Like Fr. Bakwaph argued, some political actors in the country have been accused of heightening religious tension by instigating their followers to carry out acts of violence through their statements. NIREC says this has the potential to disrupt existing peace in the country and cause the loss of lives through violence and conflicts.
“Political and government authorities should intensify the provision of security in the country in order to minimize criminal activities. Justice and good governance remain the most effective means for the promotion of peace, harmony, mutual co-existence and the development of a country. Therefore, all Nigerians must work together in peace and harmony to banish poverty from the land and ensure that every citizen lives a decent and productive life.”
Fr. Bakwaph says the solution to religious tension and conflict between Christians and Muslims would start from the grassroots where the source of the problem lies.
Young Muslims are often radicalized by extremists, so they see Christians as infidels. Fr. Bakwaph says a new form of education and de-radicalization programs should be introduced to schools to change the mindset and worldview of Muslims.
Their parents have neglected them and they are walking on the streets without any guidance,” he says. “Citizens don’t recognize their presence or give them attention. So, they are being rejected in their families and they are not being accepted in their families and so they don’t have the iota of love and they are not educated.”
Bakwaph says if “you can educate them and give them parental love and societal recognition, and they are able to recognize the value of life and love, they will not go about killing people in the name of religion. So, the solution begins from the grassroot and the promotion of education and moral values.”
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