An Interview with Archbishop John Onaiyekan, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Abuja and the former President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, conducted by Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs on July 1, 2010
In both capacities he has advocated for dialogue with the Muslim communities in Nigeria with the aim of promoting interreligious tolerance. While acknowledging that religion can compound already complex tensions throughout the country, he states that “the challenges that Nigerians face are blind to religion,” preaching a message of friendship arguing that “the values of our religions [in Nigeria] dictate peace.” From his perspective religion is as much a unifying force as an agent of divisiveness. He is working to ensure that it is used as the former and not the latter.
How did you get involved in working to build bridges between the Christian and Muslim communities in Nigeria?
The defining factor in whether a religious leader in Nigeria is a peacemaker, a promoter of interreligious dialogue and tolerance, is personal orientation. I have always been committed personally. My convictions have always pushed me towards building bridges, removing unnecessary divisions, avoiding conflict, resolving it where possible, discovering friendship, and building a more peaceful environment. Additionally, it is part and parcel of my function as a Bishop in the Catholic Church, as a priest, as a Catholic Bishop, one who has a position of leadership in the Christian community, to lead by both words and deeds, to lead everyone to adopt a positive attitude towards all religions, an attitude of tolerance. If one takes this approach, he can accomplish quite a lot, and that has been my experience. Everything can be approached in multiple ways. Religious texts can be interpreted to spread fear, or to spread peace.
The Catholic Church has very well articulated doctrines, policies, and programs aimed at working with others, working with all believers of God. Vatican II in particular pushed the Catholic Church towards a peaceful perspective. I maintained my personal and Catholic perspective as President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, shaping its actions over the past three years.
What forces are driving conflict in Nigeria?
To be sure, there is a religious dimension to some conflicts in Nigeria, but conflict is deeply rooted in the political, economic, and social challenges that confront Nigeria and Nigerians. Religion obscures these issues, problems that would exist and do exist with or without religion. So called indigenous and settler communities fight throughout Nigeria regardless of religion. The same can be said of tensions between pastoralists and agriculturalists. This is a story as old as Cain and Able. Religious factors get entangled with political power in Nigeria. If there is a regime that gives privileges and power to one side while withholding them from the other, it will foster anger. Directly and indirectly, many politicians use their positions of power to benefit their own communities, which are often defined by religious identity. Religion, however, significantly compounds these other issues.
Not all Christian and Muslims share my views on peace and tolerance, for both personal and dogmatic reasons. If religious texts are interpreted crudely, in a negative light, they can fuel conflict. There are strong rivalries and competitions between Christians and Muslims, and at times amongst Christians, and amongst Muslims, over who gets to exert influence in society at large. The temptation to demonize the ‘other’ is definitely present.
What is being done to reduce violence in Nigeria, especially those scenarios made worse by religious complications?
Since I have primarily been involved with interreligious dialogue and peacebuilding through my association with the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), let me use CAN as a point of reference. As President of CAN I tried to make it clear where I stood, but CAN is an association. It does not formulate policies that are binding and need to be accepted by all members. Rather, it is an association that tries to seek a common platform to achieve common action. Despite these limitations, I promoted tolerance and cooperation, largely through CAN’s participation in the Nigerian Interreligious Council (NIREC), which CAN had spearheaded before my presidency.
Collectively, the members of CAN decided that it was necessary to speak with Muslims, and it initiated an interreligious dialogue, which the Muslim community embraced with open arms. The government has also supported this effort. CAN continued this dialogue under my leadership, and it will continue under future presidents. There is a level of opposition on both fronts, but the general spirit amongst the Christian leadership and amongst the Muslim leadership is one of support for positive and constructive dialogue.
In my opinion, the efforts to reach out to the Muslim community are both an act of patriotism and an act of faith. You cannot pursue social harmony as if it is an alternative to what you believe in. It is necessary to have unity between your outlook and your actions.
You mentioned that there is a spirit of support for constructive dialogue between Christians and Muslims at the elite level. Does this spirit of cooperation exist at the local and grassroots level? How do you make sure that these messages, formulated at the elite level, penetrate the local and grassroots level?
If the religion is hierarchical, the message can be dictated from the higher echelons throughout the hierarchy. This is the case with the Catholic Church. The hierarchical structure allows me to lead the Church as a unified body down the path of peace. Other organizations face greater challenges on this front. Beyond this, we have attempted to copy the structures created at the federal level, such as NIREC, at the state and local level. This local reproduction has been implemented in some places, but not everywhere. It is definitely a work in progress.
What other challenges have you confronted in your work to build bridges between the Christian and Muslim communities in Nigeria?
In trying to foster a more peaceful environment in Nigeria I have confronted several difficult challenges, of which three in particular stand out. First, people are defensive of their religions, and distrustful of other religions. We have reached a point in Nigeria where if a powerful member of a church is exposed and called to account for his wrongdoings, members of his church will acknowledge that, yes, perhaps he stole, but claim that he is not the only one, and that the Muslims steal too. Muslims act similarly. The end result is that we end up defending the indefensible when we should be condemning our own first, and leading by example.
Second is the challenge presented by religious fanatics, or spoilers. They will always exist on both sides, but you cannot let them hijack the process. Those who feel differently, those who do not hold my beliefs, they respond in two ways. And this refers to both Christians and Muslims. They either do not take part in the dialogue at all, or they do so with a suspicious attitude looking for evil intentions perpetrated by the other side. Neither of these paths is constructive. Efforts must be made to bring them on board, but if this fails, sometimes we must move ahead without them.
Out of 365 days a year, violence with a religious dimension might occur for three days. Those who provoke violence, and let us acknowledge that they exist on both sides, they are a very small minority, probably below five percent of the population, but unfortunately they provoke clashes drawing in everyone. More must be done to marginalize the messages of these extremists.
The third big challenge is the irresponsibility of the media. I believe that there is a level of exaggeration in the coverage of religious conflict in Nigeria. The international media highlights the religious dimensions of violence in places like Jos, while downplaying the other dimensions of violence, failing at times to cover violence that lacks religious dimensions. Local media often follows the international media, as they do not have the resources to have journalists in the field. BBC, CNN, they might report before the local media. Neither report with any sense of responsibility.
What else needs to be done to diminish religiously infused violence in Nigeria, and subsequently, violence in general?
What we need is honest discussion at the interfaith table. When we meet, we must shake hands and smile, not because we have to, but because we want to. We must look at each other with an honest and open mind. Only then can we begin to discover the goodness in each other and see beyond our differences, and beyond are contentious past. If we really want to move forward, we cannot let the past hold us hostage, let it dictate our present and future relationships. Our basic religious principles have a lot in common. There are surely differences, but not ones that make it impossible to live in peace. It is necessary to deliberately focus efforts on surmounting the natural tendency for religions to compete and demonize. This effort entails making a conscious and necessary mental and theological attempt to reconcile views and beliefs that contradict your own. Just as religious texts can be interpreted in a negative way to fuel conflict, so too can they be interpreted in a positive and constructive way to promote peace. After all, we have more similarities than differences.
I firmly believe in freedom of religion. Whatever my individual religious beliefs, I must also admit that others might not believe as I do. We need to be prepared to let our neighbors decide how they are going to approach God.
Muslims and Christians alike must police themselves. Each group needs to reign in their own fanatics. When you find a Christian group carrying out activities that are provoking disorder, Christian leaders should condemn them, alienate them, and report their activity to the government. Muslims should act likewise. Previously these groups were viewed as useful instigators. I believe we are moving away from this perspective. It is now time for the religious leadership on all sides to disown these fanatics. If this is done, the people will abandon the fanatics. We must strip fanatics of their pulpits.
On the level of the ordinary Nigerian, they don’t really know the religion and ethnicity of their neighbors in many cases. In their minds religion isn’t the problem. The real problem is access to economic opportunity, health, and education. There are so many issues that we can collaborate on. In particular we can work to make Nigeria stronger by fighting for the rule of law, for government legitimacy and accountability.
At times these fringe groups on both fronts fall under no structure, no organization, working for peace. When religious leaders cannot control these fanatics, certain behaviors should be treated from the perspective of public order. Those who are inciting people to act out violently should be arrested. In terms of riots and violence, it is my own conviction that the state must maintain law and order. We must have more accountability. If a Bishop arms young Christians to attack Muslims, this is not a religious act. It is an act of violence, an act of inciting public disorder! When these terrible atrocities are incited and funded by religious leaders, the government has said that its hands are tied. The government has claimed that if they arrest religious leaders, the end result will simply be more disorder. Government officials must deal with these situations in an unbiased fashion, ensuring justice.
Those who perpetrate these acts of violence are not Christians targeting a mosque. They are not Muslims targeting a church. They are hoodlums destroying property. To say otherwise is to dignify them with religious titles that they are not worthy of. Neither religion is inherently violent. Both sides have committed atrocities, but these atrocities are rooted in politics, in economics. At their core, they are not religious conflicts. Religious leaders mustn’t allow government officials to play the religious card. Both sides must demand that the government act justly and fairly towards all religions. The government should be expected to carry out its functions in an even handed way. The government needs to embed the concepts of freedom of religion, justice, and fairness more firmly in Nigerian society.
The values of our religions dictate peace. God, peace, justice, fairness, they are all at the root of both Islam and Christianity. The challenges that Nigerians face are blind to religion. Corruption, malaria, HIV/AIDS, they affect everyone regardless of creed. Christians and Muslims must hold their own members accountable at all levels. We need to jointly condemn the bad and commend the good. The tendency has always been to downplay and defend those from our own religions, even when they do wrong. At the same time, we rush to condemn the misdeeds of individuals from other faiths.
What lessons have you learned from your work trying to build bridges between the religious communities of Nigeria that might be useful for others working to build peace, either in Nigeria or in another area suffering from inter-communal conflict?
Don’t jump to conclusions that this is religion at work. There are complex reasons, complex identities that fuel these violent outbreaks. People have multiple identities, and at different times, they will choose the one that is most inline with their interests. We need to take time to analyze the reality on the ground, the one that the media so often overlooks. There is more peace in Nigeria than violence. There are disagreements across various lines, as there are political parties across various lines. Religion is important in Nigeria, but there are so many other factors at play as well.