His homeland of Nigeria has more Muslims than in the entire Middle East while the militant Islamic group, Boko Haram, is wreaking havoc in the country by carrying out bombings, assassinations and abductions. Yet, when faced with extremism, Cardinal John Onaiyekan is a passionate advocate of dialogue with Muslims which he believes can prevent religiously inspired violence.
“I’ve spent 40 years having dialogue with Muslims and I believe it is possible and it is fruitful,” he said. “Don’t expect them to respond the way you are responding, but you can make an impact: attitudes are changed and bridges are build.”
The 73-year-old archbishop of Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja, is one of the African church’s most prominent figures and was in Rome this week for a theology conference taking place at the University of Notre Dame’s “global gateway” centre.
Cardinal Onaiyekan was speaking the day after a terrorist attack on civilians in Westminster and the House of Commons killing three and injuring at least 40 others. The assailant, identified by police as 52-year-old Khalid Masood, was killed by police during the incident while Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack.
In Nigeria, violence by Boko Haram has led to thousands of deaths. Since 2013, the group has carried out attacks on civilians, state buildings and churches, often on a monthly basis. And in 2014 the group captured the world’s attention when they abducted 276 school girls from a college in Chibok, Borno State.
But rather than building up prejudices the cardinal argues it is important that Nigerian Catholics and Muslims sit down and talk, otherwise the killings will escalate to such a level where “there will be no-one left to worship God.”
“We need to avoid the attitude that says Islam is just terrorism and Boko Haram. That talk is not helpful and not even true,” he said. “The number of Muslims in Nigeria is now more than in all of the Middle East, so we cannot avoid dealing with Islam.”
There are around 79 million Muslims in Nigeria, a figure that accounts for half of Nigeria’s population: the other half belong to Christian denominations with 19 million Catholics.
One of the areas that Cardinal Onaiyekan believes needs to be examined is the relationship between faith and law: a key aim of Boko Haram is to bring about an Islamic state in Nigeria and to implement Sharia Law.
“Human laws must respect divine injunctions,” the cardinal explained. “And we must discuss how divine injunctions affect human law.”
The main thrust of Cardinal Onaiyekan’s speech was focussed on the pastoral challenges in Africa: he is particularly concerned about the lack of welcome for the Catholic African diaspora living abroad.
“Many are dropping out of practice,” he stressed, explaining that they were often “ignored” or greeted with a “condescending attitude.”
“If an African is ignored, it is worse than being attacked,” he said at the conference titled “African Christian Theology: Memories and Mission for the 21st Century” and was organised by the American university’s ethics and culture department. “As a result they drop out of practice although they still want to be Christians.”
He explained that many Catholics found a home in Pentecostal churches where they were often warmly welcomed and given prominent positions within those communities.
Back home in Africa the cardinal said the growth of Christianity witnessed in the continent had been a “miracle of grace” and an extraordinary achievement given the history of evangelisation. Figures show that while in 1900 there were 9 million Christians in Africa by 2000 this was estimated at 380 million.
The problem, the cardinal stressed, was that conversions could be “skin deep” and pastors needed to ensure Christian faith is properly embedded into a person.
“The churches are overflowing and I’m opening new parishes every month,” he explained. “But sometimes the consistency of the faith is not what it is supposed to be. The challenge is making them really and truly Christians.”
He went on: “People can easily revert back to primordial practices and put aside doctrinal positions of the Church…we have to make sure our crowds become real Christians.”
PICTURE: Cardinal John Onaiyekan