Dialogue across religious lines has a long way to go

Wed, Dec 28, 2011, 00:00

GENERATING DIALOGUE between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria has always been difficult. But the rise of Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist group that carried out Sunday’s bombings at churches across the country, makes life for people such as Sr Kathleen McGarvey “challenging” and uncomfortable.

The Irish nun, who lives in religiously divided northern Nigeria, suffers frequent brickbats for her work alongside Muslim women leaders. Some of her own church colleagues question her loyalty, while alliances she has formed with Muslim groups on issues such as women’s rights, inheritance law and community relations are always fragile.

“The truth is that dialogue here can be a lonely job since, really, it is not an area that there is as yet any great concrete involvement in,” says McGarvey, a member of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of the Apostles, from Falcarragh, Co Donegal.

A lecturer in one of Nigeria’s main Catholic seminaries at Kaduna, 160km north of Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, she woke on Christmas morning to learn that more than 30 people had been killed in a blast at St Theresa’s Catholic Church in Madala, a parish she had visited. One of her former pupils, Fr Christopher Barde, ordained two years ago,had just finished saying Mass when the bomb went off.

There is little public support for Boko Haram, but McGarvey says: “In the country right now there are very many dissatisfied people, especially youth. There is little or no employment, a very poor health and education system, very treacherous roads, great insecurity. Corruption in government continues as a way of life known to all, and little or nothing is seriously done to curtail it . . . So Boko Haram represents an expression of a very disgruntled, dissatisfied population.”

Religious strife intensified during this year’s presidential election, brought about by the death of president Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim from northern Nigeria. The presidency traditionally rotates between Christian and Muslim leaders, and there was bitter disagreement over the successful campaign of his former deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, last April.

Opponents of Jonathan have criticised his response to the terrorist threat. Yesterday, however, he met Nigeria’s main Muslim spiritual leader, the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, to discuss the crisis. Afterwards, the sultan said there was no conflict between Islam and Christianity, but rather a conflict between “evil people and good people”, the latter of whom “must come together”.

Speaking ahead of the meeting, McGarvey said: “Muslim leaders and influential personalities have not come out to loudly condemn the violence or to console the victims, and this is a sore point with many Christians.

“Whether they don’t come out because they believe it is not really a Muslim problem – since Boko Haram is not an authentic Muslim group, some say – or whether they are afraid of being attacked if they speak . . . it gives rise to bad feeling.”

People are taking new precautions. “Cars are checked entering or leaving church compounds or mosques.”

Life goes on, she says, but “there is a great sense of insecurity everywhere”.