File photo of unrest in Nigeria File photo of unrest in Nigeria 

Cardinal Onaiyekan: Christians & Muslims must counter extremism together

In an interview with Vatican News, Cardinal Onaiyekan, Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja, Nigeria, decries the stoning and burning alive of a Christian student as an example of a country suffering a scourge of bad government and insecurity, targeting Christians and Muslims alike.

By Deborah Castellano Lubov

Cardinal John Onaiyekan has expressed "outrage" for the gruesome murder of a Christian student in Nigeria, and has decried the rampant violence and extremism in the country against Christians, and also against Muslims.

In an interview with Vatican News, the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja lamented the state of insecurity in the African country, attributing much of the unrest to bad governance and to fanatics, who give a bad name to the rest of nation's pacific Muslim population.

In Northwestern Nigeria's Sokoto State, a Christian student, Deborah Yakubu, was stoned to death and set on fire after Muslim students accused her of alleged blasphemy. Subsequently, as protests persisted demanding the release of two suspects in the student’s murder, a mob attacked the Holy Family Catholic cathedral in the Sokoto state.

Aid to the Church in Need decried the student's murder and called the levels of extremism and violence in Nigeria as “absolutely appalling.” They noted that “hardly a week goes by without news of kidnappings and dozens of deaths,” but that “this barbaric act leaves us speechless.”

Frequently, Nigerians, including clergy, are abducted and killed. “The increase in kidnappings, murders and general violence against civilians, including members of the Catholic clergy in many parts of Nigeria, is a scourge that is yet to be properly addressed by the local authorities,” ACN reported.

In this interview, Cardinal Onaiyekan reflects on the tragedy, its roots, what can be done, and what is often misunderstood. He also looks ahead to Pope Francis' 2-7 July visit to the African nations of Congo and South Sudan.

Nigeria as a whole, horrified - also to think perpetrators were preparing to be school teachers

Q: Cardinal Onaiyekan, a Christian college student was accused of blasphemy by Muslim classmates and was subsequently stoned and burned alive. What is your reaction and appeal following this tragedy?

My reaction, which is the reaction of, I would say, 90% of Nigerians, is horror and outrage because that action by any stretch [of the imagination] is completely reprehensible. In the first place, the lady is a Christian. So according to what they kept telling us, the Sharia law does not affect Christians. So the Christians should not be judged on the basis of any Sharia law. Secondly, even if she were a Muslim, in Nigeria, the form of Sharia law that they are practicing here has carefully eliminated provisions involving capital punishment. Thirdly, as most of the Muslim leaders have told us, the aim is to inflict the maximum penalty [for the perpetrators]. On the basis of blasphemy, it should never be left to mob action, but to a properly constituted court of law in which a competent judge will determine whether indeed this is a case of blasphemy.

Obviously, this has created a lot of anger and an annoyance, and it has made our efforts at religious dialogue with Muslims more difficult than it should be. I don't want us to forget that there is a silver lining in this whole dark cloud, namely the fact that the vast majority of Muslim leaders have condemned the action. We should not see this as something that has been done by Nigerian Muslims against Nigerian Christians.

[The fact that] that it is the work of a group of fanatics that are in the College of Education makes it even all the more worrisome because these students are preparing, to be assigned to go and teach children in secondary school primary schools in the villages of many of our states. If these students have this kind of ideas, only God knows what they are going to be teaching the children in class, if they ever end up teaching in the classrooms.

Need good governance and warning against false narratives

Q: The recent ongoing news of religious extremism and persecution in Nigeria continues shocking the world. Is the situation as horrific as it seems? And is this violence against Christians taking place exclusively in Northern Nigeria where Christians are the minority, or does it extend beyond?

There are Muslims who have their own reasons to hate Christianity. But I still continue to insist they are not in the majority in Nigeria. But whether they are minority or not, they are dangerous elements in our society because we all agree now that Christianity and Islam have come to stay in this country. We live together all across the nation, even in the North, where we are hearing about persecution of Christians. There are many Christians from the South who are living there and who have remained there, not to forget the fact that there are many indigenous of the North who are Christian and have nowhere else to run to. So for me, it is a question of governance, good governance, the rule of law. And where you have a situation in the country where these things are very much at a low rate, then you should not be surprised that this kind of thing is happening. Unfortunately, whenever it happens, it feeds into the narrative of a Nigeria that I do not believe is fair, namely one that says Nigeria is a country where Muslims are persecuting Christians.

It's that way of talking that doesn't help us to be able to deal with the issue. It is my own strong conviction that we have seen in the case of Deborah, it is only when Christians and Muslims God agree and join hands to reject terror and terrorists and extremist positions, that we can have a chance of success [referring to the Muslim leaders in Nigeria who likewise condemned the student's murder].

As it is now, those who were considered responsible for the murder, gruesome murder of Deborah, have been either arrested or declared wanted. We are waiting to see how this law will take its course. In other words, the law of Nigeria right now is treating them as murderers. Of course, there are a few Muslims who have come out hailing that these young men have done the right thing, that it is the duty of a Muslim to kill any blasphemer. But those who hold this position are a very small minority. They are very dangerous. Unfortunately, they are the ones whom most people are hearing about.

Schoolchildren kidnapped from Islamic seminary in Nigeria reunited with parents
Schoolchildren kidnapped from Islamic seminary in Nigeria reunited with parents

Victims are Christian and Muslim

Q: How is the overall state of security in Nigeria? How can and should local authorities properly address this, and how can Muslims and Christians work together to address this?

The problem on our hands is by the government's inability to enforce the rule of law and its inability to ensure security of the lives and property of every Nigerian. The issues you raised of kidnappings for ransom, killings, robberies, and all kinds of very, terrible situations, are happening now in a way that they were not happening before. The victims are both Christians and Muslims. I dare say that the perpetrators, especially of kidnappings and of these kinds of killings, are people who claim to be Muslims. So the Muslim community in Nigeria has a problem and many of them who are sincere, are clearly embarrassed that people who claim to be Muslims are behaving this way. Often some of the leaders of Islam will tell us that those who behave this way are not good, are not Muslims. But we tell them, sorry, you cannot disown them. They are Muslims. You can call them bad Muslims, but they are Muslims. If you do not accept them as Muslims, they would not do anything to deal with their wrong ideas and thereby help us find a way of changing the narrative in these circles where horrible ideas are constantly being ventilated and put into practice.  Some of those ideas are based on influence from outside Nigeria, from certain groups that we all know about, ISIS.. Taliban groups... Now with social media, people follow their ideas and ideologies. But every good country, every serious country, has said we are protecting citizens against these kind of people, even Muslim nations. 

Pope Francis to visit Congo and South Sudan

Q: How is the Pope’s upcoming July visit to Africa in your opinion significant, and do you think it can help the dire situation of intolerance, extremism and insecurity, even in Nigeria?

Well, Pope Francis, coming to Africa is good news for the whole of Africa, even though Pope Francis is going to visit only the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. The fact is that he's coming to this soil of Africa and we join in welcoming him. I imagine Pope Francis has reasons to choose those two areas, especially the fact that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he will not only be at its capital, Kinshasa, but will go to the epicentre of the civil war that has been going on in Congo for the past ten or more years, as far as Goma. Now that means that the Pope wants to put his head into the worst area of bad governance with violence as a result of controlled militants. The same thing we can say about South Sudan, a very sad situation where a nation that that became it, that chose independence not too long ago, has not been able to put its head together to build a beautiful, powerful and prosperous nation. In both cases, we hope that the visit of the Pope will remind the political leaders in both countries that they have a job to do for the sake of their people and that even the Pope is concerned.

Listen to our interview with Cardinal Onaiyekan:

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24 May 2022, 17:03