RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

 

A Talk Presented at the Session Organized by Carefronting Nigeria at Nana Country Home Hotel, Jos by Most Rev. Ignatius A.

Archbishop of Jos. 

 

INTRODUCTION

The task of spreading the good news of Christ to all people is at the heart of the Christian Mission. All Christians are therefore called to spread the gospel message to all men and women and to ensure this goal is realized. In spreading this message, efforts must be made to ensure that it is done through genuine Christian witness rather than coercion. Everyone must be able to practice his or her faith freely. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right which must be recognized as being possessed by all human beings and respected most especially by those in governments who govern the life and affairs of their citizens. It is the responsibility of all citizens, social groups, governments and all religious communities to ensure that religious freedom is guaranteed to all.

Jean Paul Sartre, in his philosophical theory concludes that man is born absolutely free and cannot but be free1. Religious freedom cannot however be equated to the kind of freedom that violates the rights of others. It is only where there is freedom of religion that we can talk of a civilized society.

No nation in the world today can be said to have absolute, freedom. The world over, wherever there has been the absence of religious freedom, it has strangled the human capacity to advance or achieve a common destiny that transcends colour, race and geographical boundaries. The tension emanating from the infringement of religious rights usually culminates in religious intolerance and violence, whereby, people claim religious superiority and go on to act or behave in manner that degrades or violates others and their beliefs.

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

The General Assembly of the United Nations in its declaration on Human Rights stated clearly that: “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest religion or belief  in teaching, practice, worship and observance”2. Abderrazak Sayadi makes a distinction between freedom of thought and freedom of conscience. According to him, “freedom of religion means the fundamental subjective right of people to choose and to practice a certain religion, whereas freedom of conscience is a much broader notion. It

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1 Sartre P.J. CF. Standard Encyclopedia or Philosophy, first published Thursday Apr 22, 2004; substantive revisio Mon Dec. 5, 2011. Plato. Stanford.edu/entries/Sartre

2 Troll C.W. Dialogue and Difference, Clarity in Christian-Muslim Relations, New York, Orbis Books 2009, p. 50.

incorporates not only the right to change religion but also the right not to have religion at all, to be an atheist, to be an agnostic or simply to be without religion. Freedom of thought confers on the individual the intellectual instruments to choose or to exercise with discernment and free will one’s own choices in matters of conscience, religion or belief”3.  

The Vatican Council II document Dignitatis Humanae declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his/her own beliefs, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.4 The Council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as their dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. The declaration puts forward various practice applications of this principle or religious freedom. The church for example no longer makes any claim of extra eclesiam nulla salus (outside of the Church there is no salvation) or promotes a Catholic State as the ideal political order. Dignitatis Humanae also makes references to the question of the limits of religious freedom acknowledging that because of the danger of possible abuses committed in the pretext of religion, government has a responsibility to protect society from such abuses and to uphold public order. Responsibility lies not just with government, but also with individuals and social groups who are bound by the moral law to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties towards others and for the common welfare of all.5 Religious freedom does not at all offer a general license for anti social or intolerant behavior. One’s freedom is limited by the freedom of other.

Religious freedom must include the freedom to leave, change, follow and evangelize other without persecution from state or group; this include respect of different theological systems of beliefs. As far back as 550 BC when Cyrus the great established the Achaemenid Empire, he overthrew the Median Empire and called himself king of Persia. He initiated a general policy of permitting religious freedom, despite his great conquest. Was a tolerant leader who granted permission to the Jews to return from exile to their native land and to rebuild the temple of Solomon6, and initiated a general policy permitting religious freedom, documenting it on the Cyrus cylinder. For the Indian Hindus, it is common knowledge that they have an impressive tradition of religious freedom. For instance, Hindu theology accepts and respects truths from all religions. And Hinduism says that “people of all religions worship the same God… the one God in everything that we know

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3 Sayadi A., “When the Rationalist School lost the War”, in Oasis, Year IV, Number 8 December, 2008, p. 37

4 Vatican Council II, Volume 1, The Conciliar and Post Documents, New Revised Edition, Austin Flannery, OP.P. 800 Par. 2

5 Dignitatis Humanae, 7

 about, and in everything that is unknowable.”7 I also emphasizes that states must show support for all religions. Hinduism believes that “all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self control and purity of heart.”8.

pope Francis recently said, “The Bishop of Rome will not be at peace as long as there are men and women of any religion- harmed in their dignity, deprived of what is necessary for their survival, robbed of their of forced to become refugees. Let us make an appeal so that the right of everyone to a dignified life and to freely profess their faith is respected9.  

 

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM BEFORE THE TIME OF JESUS

Not so much is said about freedom of religion in the Old Testament. It is even argued by some scholars that Moses was one of the first to infringe on the freedom of others to worship what they wanted, as seen when he came down from Mount Sinai and found the Israelites worshipping the golden calf; he was so infuriated that he even broke the commandments given to him by God on a slate (cf Ex. 32). Some scholars however exonerate Moses, blaming the Israelites for defiling an agreement which they had entered with the Lord, a covenant they were supposed to respect, but disobeyed. In several places in the Old Testament, we read of kings and rulers manifesting glaring religious intolerance leading to harassments and persecution of persons who defied the orders to worship the kings or their gods (Cf. Daniel 3, Jer. 4, 1 Macc 2 and 4). It is to be noted that religious intolerance is not new in our day; it was obvious even before the coming of Jesus.

 

JESUS AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

Jesus brought a new awareness and understanding of respect for others and a radical revolution as regards respect to fellow human beings, different from the narrow views of the scribes and Pharisees of his days. When the apostle opted for a showdown with a group to halt doing exactly what they were doing, Jesus, prevented them from inflicting restriction or harassment on anyone, insisting that others have a right to religious liberty. When the apostles James and John asked that they should call down fire to consume the Samaritans for the outright rejection of their master, Jesus instantly rebuked them for such inappropriate consideration. (Cf. Lk. 9:52-56). Similarly, told John not to prevent the person they saw casting out demons in Jesus’ name because he did not belong to their company. Jesus said to him: “Do not prevent him, for whoever is not against you is for you” (Cf. Lk. 9:49-50).

Jesus was patient and persuasive attracting and inviting his followers (Matt. 11:28:30; John 6:67-68). Miracles were to illuminate His teachings and to

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66 This he documented on the Cyrus Clynder. Cf. Lamb Harold, Cyrus the Great: ISBN 0523239084,

www.cyrusthe great.net/id5.html.

http;//defence.pk/threats/religious-freedom-from-hindu-perspective

 

8 ibid

9 Pope Francis, Cf. News Service, Nov. 19 2013, www.catholicnews.com/…vatican/catholic

establish its truth, not to exert coercion upon them (Matt. 9:28-29); Mark 9:23-24; 6:5-6). He did indeed denounce the unbelief of some who listened to Him,

but He left vengeance to God the Father in the expectation of the day of judgment (Cf. Matt. 11:2-24). When he sent his apostles into the world the world, He said to them: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved. He who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Noting that the weeds had been sown among the wheat, he gave orders that both should be allowed to grow until harvest time, which will come at the end of the world (Cf. Matt. 13:24-30). He refused to be a political Messiah, ruling by force. He preferred to call himself the “Son of Man, who came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

He acknowledged the power of government and its rights, when the commanded that tribute be given to Caesar: but he gave clear warning that the higher rights of God are to be kept inviolate: “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s (Matt. 22:21). In the end, when he completed on the cross the work of redemption whereby he achieved salvation and true freedom for men and women, He brought his revelation to completion. He bore witness to the truth by force on those who spoke against it. Not by force blows does his rule assert its claim (Cf. Matt. 26:51-53) John 18:36). It is established by witnessing to the truth and by hearing the truth, and it extends its dominion by the love whereby Christ, lifted up on the cross, draw all men and women to himself.

St. Paul among all the New Testament writers appears as one who was very liberal about crossing religious boundaries. He was not merely confined to the Jewish customs and traditions. In opposition to the other apostles he reached out to the Gentiles, transcending ethnic and religious boundaries. He was all things to all men. At the Areopagus we see he was very persuasive with the people and explained how the gods they were worshipping were gods made of human hands but the true God is in whom we move, live and have our being (Cf. Acts 17). To show how he used persuasion rather than coercion, he practiced the principle of accommodation when he said, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to those outside the law I became like one outside the law” (1 Cor. 9:20-21). As an apostle to the Gentiles he moved away from the stereotyping by others who regarded the Gentiles as outcasts or destined for    

destruction. St. Paul would have been very upset to hear a Nigeria Pastor who last two weeks in a fit of self-righteous/pharisaical indignation and perhaps searching for relevance or publicity, recklessly condemned a Christian Denomination to hell, judging them very harshly and uncharitably. This is a characteristic of many preachers today who are bent on attracting attention to themselves rather than to Christ, and who go on to do crazy and unchristian things dictated by moral relativism rather  than gospel values.

Taught by word and example of Christ, the Apostles followed Christ’s way of Charity. Steadfastly they proclaimed to all the plan of the Saviour, who wills that all men and women should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (Cf. 1 Tim. 2:4), respecting the rights of other even the weaker ones (Cf. Romans 14:12). They followed the example of the gentleness and respectfulness of Christ and they preached the word of God in full confidence that there was resident in the word itself a divine power able to destroy all the forces arrayed against God and bring men to faith in Christ and to his service. As the master, so too the Apostles recognized legitimate civil authority. To the Romans, St Paul admonished “let everyone be subject to higher authorities… He who resists authority resists God’s ordinance” (Romans 13:1-5). At the same time, however the apostles did not hesitate to speak out against governing powers which set themselves in opposition to the holy will of God: “It is necessary to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  

FREEDOM OF RELIGION IN NIGERIA

Statistics show that some countries have very high level of restriction on religious freedom while some restrict religious freedom minimally or indirectly. As for Nigeria, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion and freedom to propagate one’s religion, beliefs, practice and observance publicly or in private10. As such, Nigeria has no official state religion but underscoring the importance of religion, recognizes and declares as national public holidays, the major religious holidays of Christians and Muslims: Good Friday, Easter Monday and Christmas for Christians and Id-El-Fitri, Id-El-Kabir, and Id-El-Maulud for Muslims. Nigeria is said to be a very religious nation, but religious freedom understood as the liberty to practice one’s faith openly and freely without overt or covert restrictions is hampered in some parts of Nigeria by certain constitutional provisions and customary practices:

The constitution provides for the Federal Sharia Court of Appeal11 and State Sharia Court of Appeal12 as a form of Customary law. Although in theory the Sharia applies to Muslims, its constitutional provision elevates a religious law to the status of the laws of the state, and thus created a dual legal system in parts of the country.

Three main religious exist in Nigeria: African Traditional Religions, Christianity and Islam. These have coexisted peacefully for decades until the emergence of religious fundamentalism which has set Nigeria back for many years, creating tension, suspicion, polarization and violence. Accurate statistical information of Nigeria’s religious adherents is lacking. Competition about religious superiority in Nigeria has led to exaggeration of numerical strength without verifiable statistics. The 2006 census avoided taking figures about religion and ethnicity. It can be said with certainly that the Catholic Church has the tradition of carefully registering all those baptized in parish registers all over the world and so can provide very accurate statistics of adherents. Every year all the over 221,055 Catholic Parishes13 in the world bring their records of

new baptisms, marriages and confirmations together to the chancery of each

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10 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Chapter IV #38

11 Ibid. Chapter VII, Part # E

12 Ibid. Chapter VII, Part II # B

diocese in every country; the diocese collate them  and send to Rome where the world’s over 2,167 diocese14 bring theirs together and so a generally accurate number of Catholics is ascertained. When Catholics say they are about 1.2 billion, it is not arbitrary figure, neither is it a politicization of figures; there is documentary evidence for it. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, the speculation about numbers of religious adherents only generates further controversies.

While in Nigeria the constitution allows for religious freedom, in practice some restrictions, discrimination and subtle restriction of religious rights are discernible. Since this topic is about religious freedom, we must talk freely and honestly and discuss dispassionately without undue religious sentiments or bias. When we discuss religions especially as practiced by others we must do so with respect and decorum not with condescending or holier-than-thou attitude. It is heartwarming that a common forum is provided here today for both Muslims and Christians to share honestly about religious freedom, advocated by the two religions. It is an opportunity for the Muslims and Christians to speak out about where they feel they suffer a violation of their religious rights; however, not with bitterness or with the intention of heightening prejudice, but with the desire to correct the excesses in order that there will be peaceful  religious coexistence.

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13 This is as of 2008. Cf.www.catholic-hierarchy.or

14 As of 2009.wwww.ask.com/answer   

SOME EXAMPLES OF RESTRICTION OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

 

It is normal in parts of Nigeria where the practice of African Traditional religion is strong that the juju or masquerades infringe on the rights of women and children or even strangers who do not share their religious value or practices. It has been known that the masquerades destabilize market, forcing women and children to run or hide, beat up people and disrupt schools or worship programmes. Roads are blocked arbitrarily during some traditional festivals with no due regard to those who should have the freedom of movement. There are growing numbers of those who create noise pollution by the flagrant and intensive use of public address system or ringing of bells at ungodly hours, waking people up in the name of prayers or preaching. Some set up religious worship places in residential areas and make so much noise that they violate the rights of people who may not be prepared to listen to their religious messages.

In Nigeria where Christians or Muslims are in the majority, there is an unwritten law that in some parts, admission to some schools, employment or appointment of certain functionaries, religious consideration is given priority. There seems to be an unnecessary competition between the adherents of the two predominant religions: Christianity and Islam, about which religion is bigger or more powerful or influential at the various levels of government. In our delicate religious environment, very important appointments are seem in terms of religion. When for instance an Inspector General of Police or Chief of Military, Air Force, Navy or Immigration or Customs are appointed, people are generally more interested in knowing what religion he belongs to rather than what expertise or contributions he can bring to the position. In Nigeria, being a Governor or President is a very lucrative and influential business. Which adherent of particular religion occupies this plum position is considered very crucial. The appointment of Ministers is alleged to be also subjected to such religious scrutiny as to who gets to head the plum ministries such as Federal Capital Territory, Petroleum, Defence, etc. regarded as lucrative.

The emergence of Maitatsine in 1980s, followed today by Boko Haram in the history of Nigeria represents a disturbing phase of religious distrust generated by this minority group in Nigeria eager to kill religious freedom. The desire for forceful Islamization of Nigeria and Nigerians is the main motive of Boko Haram. They want Nigeria to be ruled by Sharia and insist that the President must be a Muslim. They do not believe  in democracy that allows leaders to be elected on the basis of merit. Hence, they urge President Jonathan a Christian to either convert to Islam or be killed. Happily, this is not the view of most Muslims in Nigeria who see this group as fanatical and does not represent Islam, Muslims say they convert to Islam. On the whole, Muslims say they allow religious freedom and inter-religious coexistence, since the Quran urges them to allow no coercion in religion.

Areas of concern for Muslim and Christian to reflect and honestly work on with the hope of ensuring religious freedom:

 

Conversion: Can one convert freely from Christianity to Islam or from Islam to Christianity in this country? In many cases such persons who convert are ostracized or even threatened by death and they have to run away from their communities.

Marriage: Some persons are forced to convert in order to marry persons of their choice. Women suffer more of this. Whether Christian or Muslims they are required to change their religious identity at marrying persons of another religion, believing that “a woman has no religion.” Some attract the wrath of their families or communities for marrying outside their religious circle.

Imposition of Traditional Leaders: I know a chief who had to change his religion in order not to lose his inheritance. His son who resisted changing had to succumb to pressure to remain relevant in the scheme of things. Imposition of rulers based on religious affiliation creates room for tension and uprising. Some ethnic groups feel unfairly treated when leaders from outside or even from inside are imposed on them on grounds of religion.

Subtle Discrimination: A certain ethnic group15 in northern Nigeria feels greatly marginalized on religious grounds as they are denied their social rights, amenities and career opportunities because they chose to practice different religions.

Security agents: It is frightening that there are claims that even some security agents are in danger of polarizing along religious lines. Rather than being objective and professional, they take sides based on religious convictions or affiliation.

Worship Places: It has been proven that land for the building of worship places is denied or the process made very cumbersome or impossible for religious minority.

Access to Media: The media is denied to smaller religious bodies in some states, and their activities not allowed to be broadcast in the public media.

Chaplaincies: Students are denied the services of religious leaders in some Federal and State owned institutions because they are of a minority religion.

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15 The Magazine people. The term, “Maguzawa” originated from Arabic word called Majus. It was used to describe non-Muslims or those that run away from Islam though living peacefully and under the protection of a Muslim State. They are said to be the original Hausa speaking people found in northern Niger, Chad and the Cameroons. They are found in Zaria, Katsina, Kano, Sokoto, etc., predominantly agriculturists and worship other gods, with some converts to Christianity. Today they suffer extinction in forms of harassments from extremists, thereby forcing a movement to far boarders or made to change religion. Cf. Maguzawa-Hausa People Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.org.

The Sponsorship to Religious Pilgrimages: Huge sums are spent every year in many states but discriminatorily, depending on which religious adherents are in the majority.

Partiality in Recruitment, Admission or Employment: Even in government appointments some people have been denied promotion until they convert. It has been alleged that the Nigeria Police, Military, Immigration, Customs or some Federal Institutions sometimes favour religious considerations rather than merit and proficiency.

Exclusive Appointment: In some State Federal organs are headed permanently by adherents of a particular religion, creating the wrong impression that religious affiliation determines the leadership of such federal establishments.

Polarization: Communities are polarized along religious lines, with members of one religious group in the same city deprived of going to the part reserved for adherents of the other religion. It has been reported that even misfortunes that effect one religious adherent especially one occupying a lucrative government position are celebrated by others especially if the misfortune paves way for the adherent of a different  religious body.

CONCLUSION

Religion occupies an important place in the stability of Nigeria and should play a pivotal role in our socio-political progress. Used wrongly and employed as a  negative tool, it can strangulate the so-called “giant of Africa”. Freedom of religion is foundational to a democratic society and to coexistence of any people. Americans survive well in the midst of a multiplicity of religious groups including those who even say that there is no God. What matters are merit, patriotism and selfless service to their nation. For years now, the Nigerian state has expended unnecessary energy and resources fighting crimes committed in the name of religion. We know that religion does not instigate anyone to commit acts of violence; but it has been manipulated to create the situation that almost brought this nation to its knees. The poison of religious hatred fueled by the vice negative religious indoctrination still lives with us. Nigerians need to exchange violence for negotiation, confrontation for dialogue, the arms and spear for handshake and embrace. In the past years, it has been amply demonstrated that we cannot achieve progress, peaceful coexistence or religious harmony through violence, but by mutual understanding and dialogue. God’s plan is for peace not war (Cf. Jer. 29:11). Our religious groups should “not raise the sword against another, nor train for war again” (Cf. Is. 2:4).

Let me end by recalling two examples which show mutual religious respect and freedom.

When the Prophet Mohammed saw the afflictions of his companions by the pagans, he suggested that they leave Mecca for Abbyssinia which was then ruled by a Christian king. Fourteen Muslims (eleven men and three women) left Mecca for Abbyssinia (Present day Ethiopia). The Christian King welcomed them into his Kingdom and they enjoyed peace, security and freedom.16

Also, during the Crusades in 1219, while thousand of Christian Soldiers took up arms against Muslims, St. Francis sought a way of dialogue with the Sultan Malik Al-kamil of Egypt who welcomed him in peace.17

Finally, I implore the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and the Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), who are very powerful religious bodies that have potential reconciliatory powers, to positively edify and unite Muslims and Christians to promote better understanding and progress in Nigeria, rather than throwing insults at each other or rushing to the defence of their religious groups or members even when what they defending is indefensible. These two bodies in collaboration with the Nigeria Interreligious Council (NIREC) can lead the way for inter-religious harmony and a more peaceful Nigeria. So, help us God.

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16 http://messageofislam.com /2007/09/migrationtoabbyssinia

17 http://en.m.wikipedia .org/wiki/franciofassisi