“This event has changed my perception of Christianity and has made me to understand that Christians and Muslims can coexist in peace together in our communities despite our religious difference.” Imam Sadan Lawal Bantagi, Imam of the Government House Mosque Jalingo.
Over the last decade Nigeria has been thrown into a deadly wave of religious intolerance and violence. Thousands of people has been killed, hundreds of girls have been kidnapped, churches, mosques and schools burned to the ground. In addition, terrorists regularly bomb markets and other areas where people gather. Northern Nigeria has been the battleground for much of this violence.
Boko Haram Terror
Relationships between Christians and Muslims have been strained and communities divided. Many people do not associate with those of other faiths. The Boko Haram attacks have led to counter attacks: Christians against Muslims, Muslims against Christians. In September and October 2015 in the city of Wukari Taraba, State Christian and Muslim Youth violently attacked each other’s communities. As a result, more than 1000 Muslims lost their lives and properties, and not less than 600 Christians, including four United Methodist members, lost their lives due to these attacks.
This is the environment where many United Methodists live each day. The northeastern part of Nigeria includes Taraba State, Adamawa State, Gombe State, Bauchi State, Yobe State and Borno State, the areas most affected by Boko Haram. According to National Population Commission (NPC) 12.5 million people live in this region - 60% are Muslim, 35% Christian while 5% are of other faiths. In this region there are over 750,000 United Methodists.
In this area, Boko Haram insurgents are killing people in order to create an Islamic caliphate. Many believe they are connected to the ISIS group fighting in Syria.
Building on Success
Building on the success of an inter-faith dialogue which was held in Yola, United Methodist Bishop John Wesley Yohanna, leader of The United Methodist Church Nigeria Episcopal Area, partnered with the General Board of Church and Society to host a larger inter-faith dialogue in the city of Jalingo. At the opening ceremony of the training he expressed gratitude to Church and Society for committing to support this training in the northeastern part of the country, an area feared by many visitors to Nigeria. “I want to register my profound gratitude,” said the Bishop, “For GBCS, Rev. Neal Christie and Rev. Clayton Childers, for their courage in coming to Boko Haram Region.” Bishop Yohanna added, “This Interfaith Peace Building training came at just the right time - a time when Muslims and Christians in Nigeria need to learn from each other and to be tolerant of one another. The United Methodist Church from the beginning has been at the forefront in defense of human rights, social justice and the dignity of human life. This is our commitment.”
"Western education is sin"
Boko Haram, a radical Islamist religious sect, believes that Nigeria is run by non-believers, even now when Nigeria has a Muslim president. The group's goal is to establish a fully Islamic state in Nigeria, including the implementation of criminal sharia courts across the country. The sect calls itself Jama'atul Alhul Sunnah Lidda'wati wal jihad, or "people committed to the propagation of the prophet's teachings and jihad." The name, Boko Haram, was given to the group by residents of Maiduguri, Borno state where the group was formed. "Boko" means "fake", but is used to signify Western education, while "Haram" means "forbidden", so Boko Haram colloquially translates into "Western education is sin."
Two major religions
Nigeria, a country located in the West part of Africa, has an estimated number of 170 million people (2006 census). There are two major religions in Nigeria; Christianity and Islam, almost equally divided. The northern part of the country is predominantly Muslim while the Southern part of the country is predominantly Christian.
Thousands of Christians and Muslims have been killed in the northeastern Nigeria as a result of religious conflict. In addition, many investments destroyed for the same reason. The ongoing conflict has been responsible for dramatically increasing the poverty rate in the area. This also breeds hostility and mistrust between faiths.
Interfaith Peace-Building Training
To counter this divisive rhetoric, and in a spirit of tolerance among these religious adherents, the UMC Nigeria Church and Society field office organized the Interfaith Peace Building training. This was supported by the General Board of Church and Society located in Washington D.C. who came to help train the participants on interreligious peace building and conflict transformation in order to help pave the way for wider impacts in other states in Nigeria. This training was held at the Rev. Jolly Nyame Sport complex in Jalingo, the capital city of Taraba State, from November 20-23, 2015.
Aishatu M. Hassan (ESQ) from Jalingo who is an attorney for Federation of Muslim Women of Nigeria Taraba State Chapter said “Understanding individual’s diverse religious teaching is very important in peaceful existence between Muslim and Christians in Nigeria. This training is timely because it opens our eyes to go beyond our comfort zones to do what we have not done before.”
At the training there were 60 participants, 30 leaders from Christian community and 30 from the Muslim community, with 22 imams. All were from the three states of northeastern Nigeria - Taraba State, Gombe State and Adamawa State, the regions most affected Boko Haram. These states also share the same socio-economic and religious challenges because of the ongoing violence. They all struggle with high levels of illiteracy, unemployment, poverty and lack of access to medical services.
Many people do not know that in Taraba State and surrounding areas, Muslims and Christians can live side by side, even in the same household – Muslim, Christian, traditional religions all living in the same family house. Many adherents of the two major faiths (Christianity and Islam) speak the same language and come from the same tribe. The societal divisions are not simple and are not just based on religion. There are many indications that politics and economic inequalities are the major driving forces creating disharmony among the faith communities in these areas.
Corruption and Injustice
For example, there is a huge economic gap between farmers, who are considered the poorest class of the society, and civil servants/politicians, who are considered the wealthy class. Farmers work manually with little or no support from the government, while civil servants and politicians will buy their produce during the harvest at very low prices. This has kept the farmer in a permanent low income cycle. Corruption by public office holders has also prevented meaningful development from reaching the grassroots – public officials’ embezzlement of public funds has kept the resources of the country in the hands of the few. In essence, religious conflicts stand as an obstacle to the progressive development of these states, but poverty and corruption are the deeper causes which feed the religious conflict.
During the training, participants were able to visit both a Catholic church and a Muslim mosque. Few Christians had ever been in a mosque and hardly any of the Muslims had ever been in a Christian church. In the Christian church, participants heard from the Rev. Fr. Pantiyanus Jabala of St Augustine Catholic Church Nukkai.
Father Pantiyanus said, “I grew up in a family that is a mixture of both Christian and Muslim and they have lived in peace with one another.” The priest explained that his mother was a devout Muslim who prayed five times a day. While her husband was not Muslim, he respected her prayer space and would not drink alcohol in the parlor where she prayed. Fr. Pantiyanus was baptized in a Catholic church in the arms of his Muslim mother. As a devout Muslim she wanted him to be raised with faith.
Promoting peaceful coexistence
Fr. Jabala encouraged the participants to engage their communities with activities that promote peaceful coexistence. He also talked about the importance of the reclaiming the true meaning and practice of jihad. "Jihad is not violence as many believe," said Fr. Jabala. "It is best understood as inner struggle. It is the struggle to live a religious life and to discipline one’s self to do what is morally accepted by God." The Catholic priest said he promotes it for his parishioners after confession--"it is not enough to confess," he said. "Repentance means an inner struggle with habits and attitudes--jihad."
At the Muslim mosque, Imam Adulmumini received the participants during their site visit at the Muslim Council Mosques GRA Jalingo. He said, “If you want to get something you have never gotten before try something you have never done before.” He added, "I was thrilled to have visited a church during this training, something I never thought would happen in Taraba State. New positive things are beginning to happen with Muslim and Christian in Taraba State."
Church and Society in Nigeria
Rev. Neal Christie and Rev. Clayton Childers of GBCS facilitated the trip with Nigerian facilitators. Neal Christie, GBCS Assistant General Secretary for Education and Leadership Formation said: “What I am most excited about is that this event is only one part of a larger movement for peace. There is more to come. We intentionally grouped participants according to the five regions represented. This gave them a chance first to build relationships but even more important, to make plans of what they could do to build peace in their own communities. Concrete action plans were drawn by participants in order to give a focus for further support peaceful coexistence among Christians and Muslims. We have already seen some of the proposals. This is going to multiply out as they continue to organize and implement the programs they plan.”
At end of the training, the participants made the following recommendation: call on the government to invest in promoting religious dialogue because Nigerians are highly religious people that the government cannot ignore. The participants call on Muslims and Christians in northeastern Nigeria to embrace the spirit of religious tolerance. They also call on internal faith organizations to invest in the peace-building program of the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church in Nigeria.
The role of women in peace-building
As part of the next step, the participants saw the need for Rev. Neal Christie to bring together Muslim women and United Methodist women in Northern Nigeria to focus on common issues such as domestic violence, education and economic development.
During these two days of training, the participants learned from the common traditions of Christians and Muslims related to interfaith peace building. The training sessions looked at the role of religion in national development, the promotion of interfaith dialogue and religious education in the northeastern region, and the role of women in peace-building and conflict transformation from a Muslim perspective. Other lessons learned during the training were how people of faith can respond to violence and the responsibility to build peace. Various scriptural verses from the Quran and the Bible that analyze conflict were also reviewed at the training. These scripture passages are Amos Matthew 18:1-5 and 15-21, John 19:25-27, John 20:1-18, Mark 16:17-24 and 2 Samuel 25:9-35.
"Islam is peace"
Rev. Umaru Sambo, the District Superintendent of Pero in Gombe State, stated, “God has given both Christians and Muslims the Bible and the Quran as a guide to promote peace and unity not to indulge in violence of whatever kind. I have learned from these scriptures what God wants me do to and I will do my best to live by it.” Alhaji Muh Inuwa Kabri, chairman of the Wukari mosques in Southern Taraba State, spoke on the Muslim perspective in Hausa language, saying, “The Quran and the Bible are Holy Books given by Allah to guide our conduct. But the unfortunate thing is that we have left the good teachings of our faith and chosen to follow the desires of our hearts. This training has opened my eyes to follow the will of Allah for peace because Islam is peace.”
The presentations created awareness of the need for peaceful coexistence among all the religious adherents in Nigeria. Small group discussion created a peaceful atmosphere, which brought Muslims and Christians together. This was new as both Christians and Muslims have been standing in a distance from each other and passing wrong judgments on each other. It is therefore essential that we come close to each other in a dialogue to get to know each other better for a peaceful coexistence in our society.
Imams and Reverends
Imam Sadan Lawal Bantaje, the Imam of the Government House Jalingo who presented a paper on Promoting Interfaith Dialogue and Religious Education said, “The aims of this interfaith dialogue are peace and harmony, hence the need for both Christians and Muslims to learn and appreciate the tenants of both religions is paramount to the development of Nigeria as a nation.” He added, "Over the years Nigeria has experience outbreak of religious intolerance most especially in the northeastern part of the country. Now a new era has come for Christians and Muslims in Nigeria as they embrace one another despite their religious differences."
Rev. Dr. Innocent Solomon a Founder of IS Peace Foundation in Jalingo said, “Every religion tries to enable the human person to relate to the Divine and to the rest of creation in a harmonious and mutually enriching fashion. Therefore, religious education should not be limited to one’s own religion, but adherents from other religions should learn about other faiths for the promotion of peaceful coexistence.”
Rev. Alexender Sabo, the District Superintendents of McBride Area of the United Methodist Church in Magami Jalingo, who participated in the training said, “The key factor that can promote interfaith dialogue, which could bring about peace in our society, is only when both Christians and Muslims have a clear understanding of peace building and conflict transformation from all religious point of view. Dialogue is to be evident in the practical religious life of both Christians and Muslims as a tool for progressive development in all societies.”
Imam Muhammed Abubakar, a participant from Gombe State, stated, “The seminar has made it possible for him to have the understanding that both Christians and Muslims have been handed down the teachings on peace in the Bible and the Quran. As I go back home, my mind is now free to interact with my Christian brothers and sisters.”
Imam Nurudeen Abdul said, “Interfaith dialogue has several ways to be undertaken from the Islamic point of view” quoting from the Quran:
Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and the best way of sermon and dialogue with them with what seems to be the best. Verily, your Lord knows best he who has gone astray and He knows best he who is on the righteous path ... Qur’an 16:125
He also added the following:
And do not argue with the people of the scripture, except only in the best manner, except those who have disbelief (among them). And say (unto them): We believe in what was sent to us and what was sent to you and our Lord and your Lord is One and we have all submitted to Him, (Qur’an 29:46).
The above scriptural references give support to inter-religious dialogue pointing to the Christians and other faiths as the people of the scripture. The Holy Qur’an clearly ordains a mutual relationship between the Muslims and other faiths.
"Christianity...was founded on love"
Rev. Musa Beleri, a participant from Adamawa State, said, “The concept of interfaith dialogue in Christianity is so clear; Christianity itself was founded on love.” He cited Matthew 22:37-40:
Jesus said unto him Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with thy entire mind. This is the first and the great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thy self. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:37-40)
He added that Christians have been charged by Christ to inspire peace.
Mrs. Hafsat Gurama who also participated in the training, said she discovered areas of commonality among Muslims and Christians, “We have the same ancestors - Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, all mentioned in the Quran and the Bible. Jews, Christians and Muslims all descend are from one father, Abraham, father of Ishmael and Isaac.”
“The interfaith peace building training was timely,” said Rev. Dr. Innocent Solomon the founder of I.S. Peace Foundation in Jslingo, Taraba State.