THE NEED FOR INTER-RELIGIOUS DIALOGUE
Rev. Fr. Dr. Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua
Director: Department of Mission and dialogue
Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja
Today, religion is seriously under attack from within and from without. This calls for internal cleansing of religion whereby the religious leaders must see it as an obligation to call to order, their followers who preach and promote violence. On the 20th of October, 2011, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, called an extra ordinary meeting of NIREC at Abuja to appeal to religious leaders to seek ways of using religion to restore peace and promote peaceful coexistence in Nigeria. This meeting revealed that the Nigeria government is passionate about dialogue to the extent of putting in place the Nigeria Inter-religious Council (NIREC) to promote dialogue and peaceful coexistence. Fethullah Gűlen, a Turkish Islamic scholar teaches that, “Religion focuses primarily on the immutable aspects of life and existence” but Inter-religious dialogue is confronting many challenges in Nigeria today because of suspicion based on past experiences of intolerance in some places. On the other hand, there are many places in Nigeria where Christians and Muslims still live in peace and harmony.
2. Who Wants Dialogue in Nigeria?
We may say that every body needs dialogue in Nigeria but not everybody wants dialogue in Nigeria. This depends on inherited attitude and religious heritage. Some Muslims are feeling very embarrassed that Islam is now associated with violence and terrorism because of the violence that is claimed by the Boko Haram who also claimed to be an Islamic sect. The International Communities are becoming interested in assisting Nigeria to fight terrorism through dialogue. In November 18-19, 2011, The UFUK Dialogue Foundation organized an international conference at the Transcorp Hilton, Abuja with the theme: Establishing a Culture of Coexistence and Mutual Understanding. On March 3, 2012, the Canadian Embassy called a meeting of a few scholars to a discussion on what the Canadian Government can do to assist Nigeria in fighting terrorism. The theme of the discussion was: Religious Freedom. On March 6, 2012 United States Commission on International Religious Freedom had a meeting at the Transcorp Hilton, Abuja with some religious leaders on what America government can do to help Nigeria achieve peaceful coexistence and promote human dignity. The department of Mission and Dialogue of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria (CSN) has created a forum for dialogue between Catholic and Muslim Women. The department has also initiated dialogue between Catholic and Muslim Youths. A lot of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are springing up and seeking recognition on a regular basis. Some attempts have been made by government to dialogue with the Boko Haram sects.
Dialogue has been used in Nigeria to help people resolve long-standing conflicts and to build deeper understanding of contentious issues. Dialogue is not about judging, weighing, or making decisions, but about understanding and learning. Dialogue dispels stereotypes, builds trust, and enables people to be open to perspectives that are very different from their own. Dialogue is one sure way to heal memories and wounded hearts. In dialogue, education, formation, awareness and understanding are key words. Nigerians have gone through many faces of violence, slavery and colonialism to the extent that the value of trust has been replaced with prejudice, preconception and mutual suspicions.
Fethullah Gűlen described those who resort to force as being intellectually bankrupt. In spite of the present challenges in Nigeria, there are areas were dialogue has worked in Nigeria. In the Dialogue of Life, many Muslims, Christians and traditional worshippers in Nigeria live in the same family, attend the same school and work together in the same office and other places of work. In the Dialogue of Social Engagements, Some people of different religions in Nigeria often meet in different life situations, like ceremonies, trade and even join together to fight injustice and diseases. In Nigeria some Muslims and Christians have issued joint statements to condemn terrorism and other forms of social ills. In the Dialogue of Theological Exchange, scholars of different religions in Nigeria organize seminars and workshops to discuss theological issues. In the Dialogue of religious experience, people of different religions in Nigeria sometimes share their religious experiences and dreams. We must therefore take a step further to enquire the root causes of violence in Nigeria outside religion.
3 The Mandate of the Church – Dialogue is not an Option
The Catholic Church in the Second Vatican Council taught in Nostra aetate, (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) that dialogue is not an option because we are created by the same God. Judaism, Christianity and Islam claimed Abraham as a common father, so why the fight? Pope John Paul II called for the Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi on 27 October 1986. He convoked: “Day of Pardon ”in Rome on 12 March 2000. The day was described as the “purification of memory”. On the 24th of January 2002 he called for another day of prayer for peace in Assisi. Pope Benedict XVI, at the beginning of his pontificate reminded believers of the dignity and value of the human person. The creation of the department of Mission and Dialogue in the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria is one of the responses of the Catholic Church in Nigeria to the mandate of the Second Vatican Council to promote Mission, Ecumenical and inter-religious Dialogue. The Church is in dialogue with the dialogue structures of the Muslims like: the Federation of Muslim Women Association in Nigeria FOMWAN. Archbishop John Onaiyekan referred to similar international efforts like the famous letter on “A Common Word” by over 250 high level Muslim leaders from all over the world, the Christian-Muslim dialogue initiatives from Saudi Arabia and Jordan, the visit of the Saudi King to Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican. The directorate of Inter-faith and Ecumenism of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) is charged with the responsibilities of Ecumenical and Inter-faith dialogue.
Jean Louis Cardinal Tauran, the President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, Rome was in Nigeria from March 22-30, 2012. He visited Lagos, Jos, Kafanchan, Sokoto, Abuja and Onitsha. He had an encounter with many religious leaders, and dignitaries including the Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Sultan of Sokoto, Emirs, the Chief of Staff to the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the governor of Sokoto State. His visit to the National Mosque in Abuja was very significant. The Cardinal expressed optimism and hope for Nigeria. He appreciated the hospitality of Nigerians and acknowledged that in spite of the negative reports by the international media, Nigeria remain great and full of surprises especially in the relationships that exists between the different religions in the country. In view of these I may be right to say that everybody needs dialogue to move Nigeria forward. We pray that those who do not want dialogue for whatever reason may have a change of heart and attitude.