By Onyebuchi Ezigbo in Abuja
The Catholic Archbishop of Abuja Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan has asked the Federal Government to respect the order of the court and release the leader of the Shitte Islamic group, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zazaky, from detention.
He said that the best way to address any infraction of the law by members of the religious group is to prosecute such persons following the due process of law and not to apply extra judiciary methods.
Onaiyekan who addressed a press conference on Tuesday in Abuja to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his priesthood said that Nigeria may be wittingly or unwittingly practising fake democracy if leaders are to be allowed to emerge through poorly organised elections and to govern without regard to the trust, confidence and wellbeing of the people they profess to lead.
Speaking on the issue of alleged proscription of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) also known as Shi’ites over their recent protests in Abuja, Onaiyekan said that the Federal Government’s handling of the issue fell short of expectations and was causing embrrassment to the country.
“I am not a Muslim but If I was a Muslim, I will also fight for the freedom of every Muslim because freedom of religion is not just freedom. between two religions, there is also freedom within religions.
“If the Shi’ites are protesting, they have told us clearly why they are doing so. The fact that I have not joined them in the protest does not mean that I don’t believe that they have the right to protest. Their leader has been under detention against court orders, ordering that he be released, a court order that we have been told very bluntly that has been rejected by the executive. I don’t know what would have happened if I was detained unjustly or even for any reason and the court orders my release and they refuse to allow it, I don’t know if anyone will be able to stop the Catholics from protesting,” he said.
Onaiyekan said that if a religious group goes against the laws of the land, such group should be held accountable but that the process must be in line with the provisions of the law.
“I heard about it on my way out of the country and I said I can’t believe it, that it is not true. The proscription of a religious group is certainly not in our character in Nigeria. I am happy to hear goverment making some statements somewhere, saying they are not proscribing the religious group, that they are only proscribing trouble makers.
“Why I am happy is that I feel that some people in goverment have realised that it is not good news to tell the whole world that our goverment has proscribed a religious organisation. I like to see that statement as step to backtracking, goverment has an allergy to accepting that it has made a error.
“So when they made a stupid mistake instead of agreeing that they have made a mistake, they look for ways and means of crawling back.
So let’s believe that they are crawling back and I hold on to the belief that they are not proscribing any religious group. If that is the truth then we should presume that they are not proscribing the Shi’ite movement which is a religious organization.
“My hope is that having made that mistake, because the image it gives about Nigeria, outside is terrible, that there is situation where goverment can decide one day to obtain a court order from somewhere that a certain religious group is proscribed. If we allow that to go, it means that I am not safe and my own religion can be proscribed one day too by any goverment who manages to get any Judge to issue an order to that effect,” he said.
Cardinal Onaiyekan said though the majority of the Muslims we have in the country are Sunnis but there are a substantial number that belong to the Shi’ite movement, adding that there are also those Muslims that neither belong to two known groups.
He said that the issue now is to get goverment to reconfirm its belief and respect for the rights of individuals to profess their religious belief.
“We have impressed it on governmenr to ensure the right of every religous group to exist and operate without hinderance. That right should be given not only to the Shi’ite, not only to Catholics but to all religious adherents in the country,” he said.
More details later …