It is estimated that more than 4.5 billion out of 7 billion people identify with one of the world’s four biggest religions. In Nigeria, the dominant religions are Christianity, Islam and African Traditional Religion (ATR). Historically, the relations between Muslims and Christians in the country have suffered setbacks. Due to inadequate data, the apparent fifty-fifty Muslim-Christian ratio in the country has caused controversies. Often, this translates to a fight for supremacy and triumphalism leading to “Us” versus “Them” dichotomy. While Southerners think that the South belongs to Christians, Northerners lay claim to the North. Youth-restiveness in the South and Boko Haram militancy in the North are blamed on this.
No thanks to this, religious crises in the country, especially in the North, have led to the loss of lives and property. For example, barely a few days after a mob attacked and killed one Mrs. Bridget Agbaheme for alleged blasphemy in Kano, a 41- year old carpenter, Francis Emmanuel was stabbed by unknown youths along Sokoto Road, Kakuri in Kaduna State on 7 June 2016 for eating during Ramadan Fast. In Kano, Gideon Akaluka was killed in 1995 for allegedly desecrating the Holy Qur’an. In like manner, Christiana Oluwasesin was lynched in 2007 by secondary school students in Gombe while invigilating examinations for supposedly defiling the Holy Qur’an. A lady identified as Grace Ushang was raped and murdered in Maiduguri in 2009 for wearing NYSC Khaki trousers.
Also, there have been mutual reprisal attacks during crises between Muslims and Christians in Plateau, Kaduna, Bauchi, Gombe, Kano, and Taraba States. Some religious leaders take advantage of the illiteracy and poverty of their members to instigate them to unleash terror on adherents of other creeds. Unlike Rwanda where religious leaders are licensed, in Nigeria, being a cleric is everyone’s business. Little wonder, fake prophets, Imams and fortunes tellers, who use the people as their Automated Teller Machine (ATM), are all over the place. While this happens, their allies who occupy top government positions look the other. The political elite too, often divide the masses along ethnic, religious and political fault-lines for political gain.
In a lead paper titled, The Muslim Agenda For Nigeria: Challenges of Development and Good Governance, delivered at Fountain University, Osogbo on 22 November 2015, Bishop Matthew Kukah rightly identified contested histories, narratives, and identities, lack of managing pluralism and making our sacred books superior to the constitution as challenges militating against peace, dialogue, development and good governance in Nigeria. To mitigate these, The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in its document on Dialogue and Mission (1984) proposed four kinds of dialogue namely – Dialogue of life, dialogue action, theological dialogue and dialogue of religious experience:
First, Dialogue of Life happens in a situation “where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit.” It happens in the ordinary events of life where people work and live together in neighborhoods or institutions and try to know each other in order to live in peace. For instance, when we go to the bank or market, the dialogue of life takes place as customers are not treated based on their religion. This requires patience, perseverance and personal and communal effort anchored on our common humanity. This should engender inter-tribal and inter-religious marriages.
Second, wherever Christians and Muslims work together to promote peace, liberty, social justice, and moral values, Dialogue of Action takes place. These creeds stand for justice, peace and respect for life. Since both religions share common human values and see the human as the custodian of the earth, it is imperative for Muslims and Christians “to collaborate in addressing social concerns based on these common religious motives and values” like securing their environment.
Third, when academics, experts, theologians or religious leaders of various religions meet to clarify issues and create greater understanding, they are engaged in Theological Dialogue or Dialogue of Experts. This helps in removing prejudices that blind religious leaders of a particular creed from seeing the good in another faith. Through it, they are able to appreciate each other’s spiritual values and differences. The tireless efforts of the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhamadu Sa’ad Abubakar IV and the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Matthew Kukah at peace initiatives in the country are steps in the right direction.
Fourth, Dialogue of Religious Experience takes place at interfaith prayer sessions where religious texts are jointly read and reflected upon by members of both faiths. Though it requires expertise, this type of dialogue could take place in local communities where there is a genuine need to seek the face of God together – it could be during drought or famine. The Emeritus Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan has often exemplified this by breaking the fast of Ramadan with Muslim leaders at the Central Mosque in Abuja.
Indeed, the core values of dialogue remain integrity, transparency, and compassion. Relevant stake-holders like religious and traditional leaders must realize that dialogue consists of community engagements, conflict mediation, and peace education through economic empowerment. Elsewhere, the writer surmised that: “A simple evening walk or the act of sharing a football pitch between Christians and Muslims can open up new avenues to peace.” We need to forget the bitter past so as to embrace concrete mutual understanding. Inspiring stories like that of Abdullahi Abubakar, an 83-year-old Muslim cleric who saved close to 400 Christians during an attack in Jos, Plateau State could change the narrative. We need more selfless and detribalized Nigerians like Abubakar who would build bridges of peace and not fan the embers of war. Collectively, we need to go beyond rhetoric in preaching Muslim-Christian dialogue in Nigeria and the world through our thoughts and actions.
Fr. Justine Dyikuk is a Catholic Priest and Researcher who combines being the Editor of Bauchi Caritas Catholic Newspaper, Communication’s Director of Bauchi Diocese with his job as a Lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication, University of Jos, Nigeria. He can be reached through – firstname.lastname@example.org.