A World Council of Churches delegation has appealed to Nigeria's religious leaders to encourage people belonging to different ethnic and faith groups to take initiatives to promote lasting peace and harmony in violence-affected communities.
The 'Living Letters' international ecumenical team made its appeal after reflection following its 15-20 May 2010 visit.
During the trip, the members of the team were able to see how ethnic considerations and lack of trust among various ethnic groups prevail while the authorities are unable to ensure security and protection to the people in conflict affected regions.
After their four day visit to the country, members of the team observed that there is an urgent need to strengthen the security of Nigeria's most volatile regions. The team recommended that “the religious communities jointly appeal to the government and the security agencies to be even-handed in their quest to bring peace to the Central Plateau State and neighbouring states and take measures to ensure that there will be free and fair elections in the upcoming polls”.
Living Letters are small ecumenical teams visiting a country to listen, learn, share approaches and help to confront challenges in order to overcome violence,and to promote and pray for peace. One such team travelled to Nigeria, where in addition to the Central Plateau State, they visited the country's capital city Abuja.
At the end of their visit, the Living Letters team met with the Nigeria Inter-religious Council (NIREC), an initiative of Christian and Muslim leaders set up three years ago to help stem the tide of communal violence in the country.
The council is comprised of both Christians and Muslims, with administrative support being provided by the Nigerian government. It is currently headed by the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Roman Catholic Archbishop John Onayekan, and by the Sultan of Sokoto, Haji Saad Abubakar who is the spiritual leader of the Muslim communities in Nigeria.
Members of NIREC present at the meeting included Archbishop Onayekan, Samuel Salifu, Hajia Bilikisu Yusuf and Aliyu Ocheje. During the three hour meeting, the WCC team had the opportunity of sharing experiences and comparing notes with the NIREC members on their visit to the troubled region of Jos.
The members of the Living Letters team told the NIREC representatives that the visit of the ecumenical group had been a time of learning, listening and sharing experiences.
According to Outi Vasko, a WCC Executive Committee member from the Finnish Orthodox Church, the Living Letters team visit to Nigeria was very successful but also demanding since the team was able to meet victims and understand the difficulties that they are facing. The visit encouraged and strengthened the commitment of the local churches to work for peace.
Archbishop Onayekan commended the Living Letters team for having travelled from all over the world to Nigeria. He said the two main religious communities in Nigeria are in the same boat. Nobody feels like a minority and nobody feels like a majority.
Onayekan observed that there was some kind of disconnect between the NIREC and the clerics of both faiths at the grassroots level: "There are many of my priests who don't consider my optimism for dialogue and this also applies to the other side. My conviction is that people living in the grassroots don't have problems living together but the imams and pastors leading them sometimes send wrong signals by the kind of messages they preach."
He also noted that the situation is somewhat difficult for NIREC because the people in government had sometimes used the perpetrators of violence for their political agendas.
While confessing that NIREC was still in its infancy, Hajia Bilikisu said the group had been instrumental in creating a multi-sector alliance on issues of development. She stated that NIREC had been useful in curtailing the violence in the country but she was critical of the policies of the Nigerian government for its tardy response to security issues in the troubled regions. “The problem we are having is failure of security and failure of leadership”, she said.
Arne Saeveras of Norwegian Church Aid shared experiences of interfaith cooperation in Norway, where religious groups work together for peace and justice. Saeveras suggested that religious communities in Nigeria should "jointly advocate for the government to make immediate and sufficient provisions for security for all communities“.
"As law and order collapse, the security of people is often threatened", said Dr Mathews George Chunakara, director of the WCC Commission on International Affairs. "Overt and covert alliances between political and religious organisations often lead to conflicts in communities. It is in this context that legal measures to separate politics from religion should be pursued as a matter of state policy through appropriate structural changes or statutory instruments in the country”.
Dr Johnson Mbillah of the All Africa Conference of Churches stated that the way towards sustainable peace depends on overcoming mutual suspicions among divided communities and on restoring confidence and willingness to talk across the religious divide.