Behind closed doors of the Sheraton hotels in Abuja, dozens of religious men sporting long, colorful turbans rub shoulders with pastors and Catholic nuns, laughing and chatting as they break bread and sip coffee at the annual meeting of the Nigeria Inter-religious Council (NIREC).
Inside one of the hotel’s cozy halls, Christians and Muslims sit next to each other, discussing how civil authorities’ contributions to religious dialogue will foster national building.
This meeting, among other interfaith forums throughout the year, is contributing positively to the longstanding interreligious violence between two religions in Nigeria that have had historic tension — Muslims and Christians.
Consequences of Violence
In the summer of 2001, 9-year-old Christian Onuorah witnessed the notorious violence between Christians and Muslims in Jos, a city in Nigeria’s north-central region.
It happened on a Friday during early-afternoon Jumat prayers, which coincide with the closing time for primary schools. Onuorah’s school bus pulled up in front of his father’s construction materials shop when he saw people running back and forth, screaming, “an fara, an fara,” a Hausa phrase that translates to “they have started, they have started.”
Tit-for-tat killings had started between Christians and Muslims in Jos. In Muslim-dominated areas, Muslims roamed the streets and singled out Christians. In Christian-dominated areas, Christians retaliated with killings Muslims. Cars, houses, and churches were burned to the ground.
Later that evening, the Onuorah family, along with others fleeing the violence, packed their belongings and trekked 5 km to the army barracks in the city to find refuge with a family member living there.
“We stayed with my uncle for days in the barracks without going to school,” Onuorah said. “I was lucky the violence didn’t affect my family.”
When the crisis subsided, more than 1,000 people were dead and hundreds displaced. Many businesses and factories shut down operations in the aftermath of the Jos crisis, leaving livelihoods and the state economy blighted.
While 2001 was regarded as the deadliest interreligious crisis in Jos, the killings didn’t end in 2001. They continued into 2004, 2008, and 2010, spilling into other states like Kaduna.
Human Rights Watch reported that more than 13,000 people in Nigeria have been killed in separate interreligious attacks since 1999. According to the Human Rights Watch, the cause of the crisis in Jos was rooted in the allocation of resources, electoral competition, and fears of religious domination.
Fears of religious domination
Since Nigeria’s return to democracy with the election of former president, Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, the northern region of Nigeria has been embroiled in high-profile, interreligious conflicts between Christianity and Islam. Christians, nestled mostly in the southern region, make up 49 percent of the entire population. Muslims, who live mostly in the northern region, make up 48 percent.
From the 1970s to the early 1990s, the Indigenous Christian tribes in Jos — the Berom, Fizere, and Anaguta — had control over local politics. But by 1999, electoral power favored the Hausas, mostly Muslims, and considered dwellers in the state.
Desperate for power, local politicians took advantage of the religious differences. They instigated followers to see the other religion as the enemy bent on controlling political power.
The interreligious crisis also spread to the neighboring Kaduna state, where Sharia law was established in 2000 . A move to Islamize a pluralistic state through Sharia law was unacceptable to Christians, and violence began.
In his research to understand the causes of this conflict, Olatunji Alao, a scholar at Adeleke University, says that politics and religion created age-long problems in Kaduna.
"First is the sustained feeling of political marginalization by the people of Southern Kaduna, a Christian-dominated area against the Hausa/Fulani administrators," he said. "Second is the religious difference between the Christians and the Hausa/Fulani.”
In Search of Solutions,'Dialogue fosters understanding'
A decade after the 2000 Kaduna crisis, Sister Kathleen McGarvey, a Catholic nun who came to Kaduna to work on her doctorate research in women’s religious discourse and interreligious dialogue, discovered there were no interfaith groups in Kaduna.
So, in 2010, McGarvey started the Women Interfaith Council (WIC), to bring Muslim and Christian women together to tackle issues tied to interreligious conflicts and domestic violence against women — two issues that are deeply woven into the fabric of the northern region.
Although McGarvey left Nigeria in 2013, the interfaith group in Kaduna has grown into a potent force of interreligious dialogue under the leadership of its executive director, Sister Veronica Onyeanisi.
The interfaith group, like NIREC, is doing what was considered an abomination merely 10 years ago: bringing Christians and Muslims together in dialogue to confront harmful religious sentiments. Every month, up to 500 women attend the general council meeting where faith leaders discuss where they agree on peace, using both the Bible and the Quran as templates.
“Nobody forces us to come together,” said Hajya Daharatu Ahmed, the Muslim Coordinator of WIC. “To be a member you have to be interested in peace-building and prepare to be a peace-maker.”
Ahmed said that the mission of WIC's monthly meetings is for mothers to go back to their families and communities and share the lessons they’ve learned.
“As mothers, we also teach ourselves to be aware of the language of communications about any religion at home and in our communities,” she said. “It should be a positive language that will pass positive messages to the children so that when they go out to play with their colleagues, they will respect and tolerate other religions.”
To increase impact, WIC established the Youth Interfaith Council (YIC) to train youth to understand the other religion, learn how to counter misinformation on social media, and discuss issues like drug abuse that affect the youth in each community.
Back at the NIREC annual meeting, after long hours of presentations, everyone in the hall concludes government intervention and support is necessary for facilitating unity through interreligious groups.
“It’s through more dialogue we will know the difference that exists between both religions,” Abubakar Ahmed, an NIREC member, said. “Dialogue fosters understanding.”