The pastor began his speech talking about the classic Christian virtue of charity and the prospect of salvation. Another 20 minutes went by with impassioned words about loving God and loving man, punctuated by enthusiastic amens from the hundreds of dressed-up followers in the pews. It could have been almost any church in the world.
But the church was in Nigeria. Suddenly the pastor revealed a darker purpose. He made claims about what "the Muslims” do not “know,” listing a series of familiar moral principles and actions, like a disdain for usury, that he thought Muslims were incapable of understanding. Retribution, he made nauseatingly clear, would be visited upon the flock's friends and neighbors that happened to worship another God.
Perhaps in another part of the world such rhetoric could be seen as hateful yet harmless. But not in Nigeria, where where every year thousands die in numbingly repetitive religious violence. In the town of this church, Kaduna, one thousand were killed in a particularly bloody frenzy in February 2000. Kaduna also gained notoriety in December 2009 as the place where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber of Northwest flight 253, was raised.
This past Christmas eve, another Nigerian religious flashpoint, Jos, erupted in violence. In attacks attributed to a Muslim sect called Boko Haram, multiple bomb explosions targeting Christians killed eighty people. Another bomb, for which no one has yet claimed credit, killed four in Abuja on New Year’s Eve. The deceased leader of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, had told the BBC that he believes Western education, including the belief that the world is round, is contrary to the teachings of Islam.
Nigerian Christian leaders have expressed some similarly regressive views. The primate of the Nigerian Anglican church, Archbishop Nicholas Okah, has reportedly urged the country to withdraw from the United Nations because of its support for homosexual rights. Homosexuality is illegal in Nigeria, with a long and growing list of instances of abuse and discrimination against homosexuals.
Adding to the tragedy of the hateful rhetoric is the wasted potential. In a country where often the extent of rural government services is a ballot box that shows up every four years, the church and mosque together are the only institutions with an on-the-ground presence in nearly every part of the country. A consistent, widespread message of tolerance—should the country’s paramount religious leaders decide to send one—could be distributed through a network with unparalleled reach.
Religious leaders are also trusted. In a period of surging religious activity in Nigeria, pastors and imams have an unsurpassed influence on community norms and behavior. This influence could help solve the country’s numerous other serious systemic problems, like corruption, revenue distribution from natural resources and terrorism. In my case, I had been sent to Nigeria to look at ways religious leaders could help their communities combat malaria. Needless to say, the pastor I encountered did not seem like a desirable ally to have in the fight.
To be sure, there are some models of religious coexistence. After years of directing attacks toward each other’s congregations in Kaduna, two religious leaders, Pastor James Movel Wuye and Imam Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa, made a much-publicized peace in the late 1990s. Since that time they have toured the world with their message of reconciliation and served as a model to many Nigerians tired of fighting their fellow citizens only to produce greater sorrow. But their message has yet to resonate widely.
After the church service in Kaduna I introduced myself to Joshua, the bass player in the church band. We talked about the music he played, and then I asked about the pastor's speech. "What about it?,” he responded. I hinted that the pastor had said some not-nice things about our Muslim friends. "Oh," he nodded, realizing my concern. He shrugged. “He just talks like that.” In the saddest of commentaries, his expectations of his religious leader were so low that he wasn’t even disappointed.
The challenge for both Nigerian and American policy makers and religious leaders is how to raise those expectations. Aside from the threat from Islamic fundamentalists, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, its largest contributor of peacekeepers and its largest producer of oil. A binational commission between the two countries was established in April 2010 to focus on corruption, energy, food and security issues. The discussion of these important matters could benefit from the authority and expertise of religious leaders from both countries. In the process, efforts should be made to encourage the interreligious dialogue that can make hate speech elicit headlines instead of yawns.
(Photo by P. Tricorache )