Nigeria’s religious persecution caught Church by surprise

February 13, 2013 by  
Filed under newsletter-world

Cardinal John Olorunfemi OnaiyekanNigeria, February 08, 2013: Church burnings, attacks on worshippers and suicide bombings in Nigeria are a recent phenomenon that threatens the longstanding harmony between Muslims and Christians, warned Nigeria’s new cardinal.

“(This) is all new to us,” Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja, told MPs and Senators of the Canada Holy See Friendship Group Feb. 4.

“We didn’t think it would ever happen.”

In churches, there is a heightened sense of security. Cars can no longer drive near his cathedral, for example, and men can expect to be frisked and women are discouraged from bringing big bags, he said. But he travels freely in Nigeria without bodyguards and does not experience any sense of personal threat.

Onaiyekan says the extremists, led by an organization called Boko Haram which claims to act in the name of Islam, are “a group of criminals who do not represent the authentic faith of Islam.” Not only have they attacked Christian churches, they have attacked government installations and other Muslims, he said. They have killed imams who preached against their activities, but this side of the story is not getting out.

Nigeria is about 50 per cent Muslim and 50 per cent Christian and over the years has built a tradition of living together in peace, the cardinal said. “The terrorist activities in the North are putting harmonious living to the test.”

“People are becoming suspicious,” he said. When a church is bombed in Nigeria’s north, Christians get angry. “It’s a bad sign” and makes it difficult for Christians and Muslims to come together, he said.

Nigeria recorded more than 700 Christian deaths due to terrorism in 2012, up from 437 the previous year, according to statistics from the Institute for Economics and Peace. Nigerian Christians are also watching the trouble in Mali and have become “all the more worried.”

“This issue has international ramifications,” he said.

Although the good relations are being shaken, Onaiyekan still believes the vast majority of Nigeria’s 80 million Muslims want to live in peace. Most of their leaders have disassociated themselves from the activities of the terrorists in the North. One imam even said they cannot be Muslim because they are killing innocent people, he said.

Onaiyekan said he has challenged members of the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs to take responsibility for the violence.

“They are your boys,” he said. “They belong to the House of Islam.”

Onaiyekan recently finished a three-year term as president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, which comprises Catholics and other Christian groups. He worked closely with the Sultan of Sokoto who heads the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, a similar group for Muslims. Both were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to foster religious harmony.

The cardinal warned against giving up and falling into despair.

“We believe we can do something to encourage all kinds of relationships, bridge-building and seeking common ground,” he said. “The difficulties do not mean we cannot work together.”
Nigeria has enshrined religious freedom in its constitution and laws, he said. There may be social pressures that interfere with conversion from one faith to another, but it is not illegal.
“Religious freedom and freedom of conscience are basic human rights, next in importance to the right to life,” he said. “There is no excuse for any country to deny religious rights to any citizen.”
He decried Pakistan’s blasphemy laws that have been used to persecute Christians and other minorities as a violation of international human rights, as well as rules of some Islamic republics that issue death sentences for converting from Islam to another faith.

– catholic register

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