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REPORT | Kerry’s Nigeria Visit Ignites Religious Tensions

LAGOS, Nigeria

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Nigeria last week came amid a new low in relations between its Muslim and Christian populations.

A few days before his arrival, the country woke to reports that a Christian student was mobbed for alleged blasphemy in northwestern Zamfara, one of the states that has adopted an Islamic legal code. The student did not die. But eight other persons, all Muslims, including a man who reportedly shielded the alleged blasphemer from his accusers, were burned to death by the mob.

Months earlier, three incidents of Christians killed by alleged Muslim mobs, including a female preacher in the capital Abuja, served to raise tension between adherents of the two faiths.

These incidents were not helped by allegations that the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim, has not done enough to protect the Christian minorities in the north. The president’s handlers reject the charge, while observers say such incidents are hardly exclusive to his tenure.

In the southwest, where religious violence is a rarity, both sides have bickered over the use of Muslim head coverings in public institutions, including in schools, most of which bear the vestiges of Christian missionaries.

Recent court rulings say Muslim girls can don their head covering, knocking down earlier bans.

Favoritism charges

So when Kerry arrived in Nigeria and headed straight to the northwestern Sokoto State where, among other engagements, he conferred with Sokoto Sultan Abubakar Sa’ad and a few other Islamic leaders, the Christians were not amused.

While in Sokoto, Kerry gave a talk on violent extremism and religious tolerance in a bid to seek support against Boko Haram and other “takfiri” ideologies, meaning that they brand other Muslims or sects as infidels.

A miffed Reverend Supo Ayokunle, head of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), was quoted as saying Kerry’s “lack of respect for the heterogeneous nature of Nigeria amounted to favoring northern Nigeria and Muslims to the detriment of the Christian community.”

Founded in 1976, CAN is the largest umbrella body for Christians of nearly all denominations from the West African state.

The Christian leader added: “There’s a siege on Christians. Kerry, his actions speak volumes, his actions, body language were very divisive.

“If the U.S. secretary of state is coming for an official visit, it’s understandable, but we demand an explanation of why he was selective. Has the sultan’s palace become another State House [the president’s residence]? Was Kerry invited by the sultan?”

Analysts say the statement reflects a longstanding rivalry between Christians and their Muslim counterparts, even though representatives of both sit as equal partners on a government-inspired interfaith council.

When the two are not arguing over whether or not the country is a secular country, they disagree over which religion has a higher population of Nigeria’s estimated 180 million people or which gets unfair advantages.

Closely divided

There is no official national census figure for the number of Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. However, the 2016 CIA Factbook puts the population of Muslims at 50% and Christians at 40% while the remaining 10% are credited with indigenous beliefs. Christians have repeatedly rejected this figure.

Washington has not responded to the complaints of the Christian chief. But Kerry’s visit and the Christian group’s response have pointed up the religious divisions in the country, even though a few public commentators have rejected the position of the Christian leader.

“It’s all hogwash and stupid, as far as I’m concerned,” Olakunle Abimbola, a national newspaper columnist, told Anadolu Agency.

“I think CAN, after losing credibility during the [President Goodluck] Jonathan era, is just getting hysterical over nothing. … CAN right now has near-zero credibility. But aside from that, personally, I don’t think there is anything to it,” he added.

Neither the sultan nor the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs that he chairs has addressed the comments. However, a few Islamic groups have said CAN’s comments were “outrageous” and meant to blackmail Muslims.

Landmark event

Disu Kamor, the executive chair of the Muslim Public Affairs Center (MPAC), said claims that the U.S. favors Muslims fall flat in the face of “the undue favors and colossal support” the Christian community have received, and are still receiving, from Western-backed missions abroad. He urged CAN’s new leadership to drop the mindset that saw a few major Christian denominations, including Catholics, pull out of the body some years back.

“The new president of CAN, the Reverend Supo Ayokunle, instead of acting like a garrison commander and stoking unbridled emotions and mass paranoia for personal narrow gain, should focus energy and time on creating a new vision and direction for the organization to become relevant and start making important contributions to the progress, security and prosperity of our nation,” said Kamor.

“Secretary Kerry’s visit to His Royal Highness, the sultan of Sokoto, was a landmark event and an important recognition of sultan’s exemplary leadership and achievements in promoting peaceful coexistence and helping to build a vision of healing, peace, and progress for the nation,” he added.

But for Onye Nkuzi, a top public affairs commentator, the CAN chief was not wrong.

“Kerry’s visit sent a message to Northern Christians: We will treat you like we treated the Iraqi and Syrian Christians: pretend you don’t exist,” Nkuzi said on Twitter, instantly attracting hundreds of retweets.

“Can the U.S. secretary of state visit India and only meet Hindu leaders, totally ignoring Muslim, Christian, and Sikh leaders?” he added.

Source: Anadolu Agency

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