On the Rising Religious Intolerance


Governments and religious bodies in Nigeria should deliberately avoid and discourage acts capable of hurting religious sentiments, and intensify efforts to encourage tolerance. Vincent Obia writes

It has been more than two weeks since a 74-year-old woman was murdered in Kano by Muslim fanatics, and that savagery seems to have provided the impetus for more religious cruelties. Mrs Briget Agbaheme, a Christian and trader at Kofar Wambai market, in Kano, was on June 2 clubbed to death by irate youths who accused her of blasphemy.

Five days later, on Tuesday, in Kaduna, a carpenter, Mr. Francis Emmanuel, was almost lynched by some Muslim youths in the Kakuri area of the metropolis for failing to observe the Ramadan fast. Forty-one-year-old Emmanuel was lucky to live to narrate his ordeal, as some sympathetic neighbours intervened and took him to the hospital. In pain on his hospital bed, he told journalists, “I went to buy wood to do some work. When I came back, I bought food to eat. As I was eating, about six Hausa boys came and asked me whether I was a Muslim or a Christian. I did not answer them. They asked me, why was I not fasting with them? I told them that I am not a Muslim.

“Before I knew it, one of them slapped me. As I stood up, the rest came and surrounded me and started attacking me with knives. I don’t know them. Nobody could come to my aid because of the type of dangerous knives they were carrying.
“They used cutlasses, scissors and knives on me until I became unconscious. I don’t even know who brought me to the hospital.”

Those alleged to be involved in these two incidents are being prosecuted in court. But beyond that, government at all levels in the affected areas need to take deliberate actions to discourage intolerance in all forms. As none of the two main religions, Islam and Christianity, and, indeed, no religion in the country, condones violence, implicitly or explicitly, religious leaders must intensity efforts to preach the virtues of tolerance, love, and coexistence – and be seen to be doing so.

Religious leaders would be doing Nigeria no good if they continue to tolerate in their congregations persons who by their actions and utterances seek to crush other people’s consciences and force them to follow beliefs they do not trust. There is no doubt that those who killed Agbaheme and attacked Emmanuel were persons resident or close to the neighbourhoods where the barbarisms were perpetrated. Those assailants were, certainly, close enough to be known and identified by both neighbours and leaders of the religion whose tenets they claimed to be upholding within the localities.

A deliberate attempt by religious leaders to isolate vicious tendencies committed in the name of religion and those associated with them will go a long way in preventing such inclinations and the tensions and divisions they cause.

Government at all levels, too, must eschew actions that tend towards religious imposition.
There is mounting tension in Osun State currently after a judgement of the State High Court in favour of the right of female pupils to wear hijab, an Islamic headscarf, in public schools.
The Christian Association of Nigeria responded to the verdict by directing all female Christian students in both primary and secondary schools in the state to wear their church garments to their various schools, beginning from tomorrow.

The judgement was on a case instituted by the Osun State Muslim Community against the state government over the right of female Muslim students in public schools in the state to use hijab on their school uniforms. But the preponderance of opinion in the state is that Governor Rauf Aregbesola, a Muslim, has encouraged the latest disagreement, which has further increased tension between Christians and Muslims. Religious pressures have been on the rise in Osun State since Aregbesola assumed office in November 2010.

At the federal level, too, there is growing resentment over an attempt by the National Assembly to pass a bill seeking to increase the jurisdiction of the Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory and Sharia Court of the states in relation to the criminal justice system of the country. Many Christians see the bill as an attempt to Islamise Nigeria.

On Tuesday in Abuja, hundreds of protesters, comprising Muslims and Christians, under the aegis of the Coalition of Civil Society and Faith Based Organisations, marched to the National Assembly to protest against the proposed law, which they said was a recipe for disunity and conflicts that may lead to violence.

The government and religious leaders have a responsibility to lead the way in the efforts to enthrone religious and ethnic tolerance in the country. They should teach and preach tolerance in word and in deed.
Nigerians must learn to honour and respect one another’s beliefs. They must always give those on the other side of the religious divide the room to live in accordance with their own beliefs.
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