The struggle to close the gap between different religions in Nigeria, especially Christians and Muslims, might have gathered more weight Monday in Abuja, Nigeria if the warm reception for the rather pleasant shocker from Professor Sani Lugga, the Wazirin Katsina is anything to go by. Prof Lugga made an impression when he told high profile peace practitioners gathered at the National Conference on Protection of Holy Sites that there is nothing inevitable about conflict between the two religions. After all, according to the Katsina traditional title holder, Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam, sent his daughter and faithfuls to the Christian Emperor of Habasha, in present day Ethiopia, the most powerful Christian territory in the world at the time. Not only was the delegation from Medina escaping persecution well received and protected, it was also followed by what could be called the first Mosque and, by implication, the first Muslim community in the world in the town of Negash in Habasha.
Meant to locate the sanctity of holy sites as standard practice in Christian – Muslim relations historically, Professor Lugga says protecting places of worship goes along with protecting the worshippers because destruction of holy sites is only venting of anger on the property believed to capture the soul of the worshippers. He is hopeful that if faithfuls of the two different religions could go by what their respective faiths provided, they could co-exist peacefully because history does not show that they are implacable enemies.
Professor Lugga’s intervention came among that of other high profile peace practitioners from across the world trying to consolidate sub-regional, (northeast, northwest and northcentral) consensus building efforts towards accomplishing a universal code on protecting holy sites. The project being championed by Search for Common Ground, the international peace building NGO and funded by the Norwegian Ministry for Foreign Affairs has been in the making since 2008. Among practitioners who have so far made presentations or are actively if not symbolically present are Chom Bagu, a veteran of the Plateau peace process and an adviser to the project; Mr John Atang of the King Abdulla Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for InterReligious and Intercultural Dialogue; Sharon Rosen, the Global Director of Religious Engagement based in Jerusalem for Search for Common Ground; Professor Tukur Baba, the Usman Dan Fodio University Sociologist; Dr Muhammadu Nurayn Asafa of the Kaduna based Interfaith Mediation Centre, Hajia Rekiya Momoh-Abaji, an adviser to the programme, Dr Chris Kwaja, a peace intellectual and Dr Suleiman Kura, the Head of the Conflict Management at the Usman Dan Fodio University, Sokoto, among others.
Setting the ball rolling on the broad direction before Prof Lugga’s intervention were Rajendra Mulmi, Chom Bagu and Sharon Rosen. Mulmi, the country Director of Search for Common Ground had made the point earlier on that destruction of holy sites follows a logic: “when we want to hurt others, we hit where we think hurts the most”. Comrade Chom told the gathering how it had been found that at the heart of the Nigerian identity is religion, how dragging religion into even non-religious battles changes such battles completely and how destruction of places of worship drove a cycle of violence. Discovering thus that religion is part of the problem, their own strategy was to make it a resource for peace through consensus building on safeguarding places that had hitherto served as sanctuary for people under threat.
Comrade Chom, therefore, stressed how important the National Conference on Protection of Holy Sites is because if the sub-regional consensuses got tidied up into a national one at the conference, then something great would have been achieved, he said.
Extending Chom’s point earlier on about religion being at the heart of identity, Sharon Rose disclosed that 85% of people in the world stand on their religious identity, adding that religion, therefore, has to be engaged in other to promote peace. The message of a Universal Code on Protection of Holy Sites is, for her, that of saying that religion could be the answer rather than the problem of peace in the world. This, she said, could only be operationalised by engaging with religious leaders, a process which, according to Chom, is already on a high gear in Nigeria, involving Sa’ad Abubakar 111, the Sultan of Sokoto and Dr John Onaiyekan, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja. Sharon told the conference the interesting story of how building trust and relationship eased a conflict that was considered intractable. She was referring to Mount Zion as a shared Holy Site involving Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Briefing the gathering on the Geneva based King Abdulla Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for InterReligious and Intercultural Dialogue, (KAICIID), Dr Joseph Atang, the Country Expert for Nigeria explained its ownership by four countries: Saudi Arabia, Austria, Spain and the Holy See. Dr Atang listed its partners to include the United Nations, UNESCO, Religion for Peace and the African Union, among others. KAICIID is working in Nigeria, Syria and Iraq, Myanmar and the Central African Republic, he said, adding that the vision is its belief in religion as an enabler.
In what seemed to have best summed up the essence of the project of protecting holy sites, Mallam Sani Suleiman of Search for Common Ground who acted as Master of Ceremony told the story of how quickly a false story on an FM station spread throughout the entire Plateau State in 2004 to the effect that Fatima Cathedral in Jos had been burnt. Within a few hours, a plan had been concluded to burn the Jos Central Mosque in retaliation. It was only aborted when both Bishop Ignatius Kaigama and the late Sheikh Balarabe Dawud went to the same FM station to say that the Fatima Cathedral was completely intact and safe. He said Bishop Kaigama had to say on the radio that he had called and spoken to the priest in charge of the Cathedral and had confirmed that nobody had burnt down the place. Mallam Suleiman wondered what would have happened throughout Nigeria if not that intervention by the two religious leaders, adding how, in truth, the false story was based on smoke sighted around the Cathedral and taken for its violent destruction. It illustrated both the need to privilege protecting holy sites and how working with religious leaders helps in making places of worship places of safety.
The agenda of securing holy sites against attack in moments of rage certainly opens a new dimension to the pursuit of world peace in accordance with the belief that peace is never enough. There can never be too much of peace. In the light of renewed recognition that reality itself is no more than norms, faith and images, religion is bound to be a key theatre for exploring new spaces of peace, religion being the seat of norms and, hence, its trumping of science and scientificity in the post Cold War geopolitical moment. Under the National Conference under review, we might be seeing human beings at work, opening new frontiers with a view to expanding the potentials locked in religion, all in a bid to save humanity from exaggerated trust in science.
The National Conference is scheduled to wind up tomorrow at an even higher profile session.