145 years of Christianity in Nigeria: How far, how well?

After unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the Nigerian belief system, in 1842, the first (arguably) successful Christian mission expedition anchored in Nigeria’s faith logic. Through challenges with unity and leadership tussles, and commendable attempts to ensure religious harmony, despite Nigeria’s multi-religious nature, as the world begins the celebration of the week of Christian unity today, RITA OKONOBOH, in this report, examines how Christianity has fared in Nigeria in the past 145 years.

When the first known traces of the Christian doctrine found its way into the shores of Nigeria, it experienced various rejections, most of which bothered on the concept of understanding how one man could be said to have been born specifically to die for the sins of mankind.

There was a belief system in what may best be described as the mysterious – this is evident in Nigeria’s traditional worship system and its influence even till date – but the concept of a God, the Trinity, death on the cross, the crucifixion and the like, was more or less something of a fairy tale. Then, came the establishment of the first church in Nigeria, built in the memory of Reverend Henry Townsend and Reverend John B. Wood, on September 6, 1898.

Through challenges of acceptance and many significant activities, much of which is recorded in many available books on the history of the church in Nigeria, the Christian faith got its roots, and gradually expanded throughout the country. As more people embraced the faith, so did more denominations emerge, and which further threatened the unity of the Christian fold.

Thereafter, there arose differing interpretations of the Bible, especially with the Old Testament and New Testament practices. From dressing to speech, study of the Bible, how services are held, and even gender issues, Christendom in Nigeria, as we know it, does not hold one voice in this regard. A national example of these variants in practice, has its root in the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) founded in 1976.

“That they all may be one,” is instructively the motto of the CAN, which is supposed to be the umbrella organisation of all Christians in Nigeria. Interestingly, in the past, even within the organisation itself, there had been pockets of disunity, especially as it related to taking up leadership positions and style of governance.

This is no surprise though, considering the fact that different denominations with diverse forms of worship make up CAN. Even within mega denominations, there are pockets of internal crisis, with some leading as far as suing fellow members of a church to court.

Iheanyi M. Enwerem, in the text, A Dangerous Awakening: The Politicisation of Religion in Nigeria, shares insight into an interaction with the then national Secretary-General of CAN, Mr. C.O. Williams, who spoke on how CAN came into being.

“It all started with a telegram which the Christian Council of Nigeria received towards the end of its general assembly held in Jos in August 1976 from the then Major General Shehu Yar’Adua, the Chief of Staff at the Supreme Military Headquarters, inviting church leaders to a meeting at Dodan Barracks – the seat of the military government. The meeting, which lasted ‘barely forty minutes,’ turned out to be a gathering of Christian leaders of a large number of denominations. Present at that meeting were 33 church leaders from 13 denominations, namely: Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, the African Church, Presbyterians, the Salvation Army, the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria (LCCN), the Apostolic Church, United African Methodists (UAMC), the Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA), the Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN), and the HEKAN churches. The church leaders, who were present at the meeting, had themselves recorded later as the ‘Foundation Members of the Christian Association of Nigeria.’

“At that meeting with the church leaders, ‘the Chief of Staff read out an address which dealt with vital issues.’ Mr Williams did not elaborate on what these ‘vital issues’ were, except to say in effect that ‘the government was about to consult [the church leaders] on the “[National] Pledge” which was being recited in the schools and wanted to know [their] opinion.’

“Unprepared to give an impromptu response to the address, and apparently wanting to speak with one voice, the church leaders delayed their response and assured the Chief of Staff that a prepared rejoinder would be brought to the government at a later date. Meanwhile, immediately after the meeting with the government, Mr. Williams stated: [The Christian leaders] suddenly had a brain wave and thought: if the government could call the church leaders together, why is it that we could not call one another together; why should we wait for the Government to call the various denominations? So, we decided there and then to retire to a convenient spot — all the church leaders. And the most convenient spot at that time was the Catholic Secretariat. So we all went there, and that was how we decided to form CAN. We did not plan it before; it just came about like that. Of course with the antagonism mounting against Christianity in the country, the formation came just at the right time.”

 

A house divided against itself cannot stand —CAN President

After more than 40 years of existence, one must commend CAN for various efforts, especially, aimed at landmark achievements, some of which include ensuring religious harmony with people of other faiths; acting as voice of conscience for government on campaign promises affecting Christians and non-Christians alike; taking a stand on vital issues with consequences on the polity; bringing some sense of decorum to the increasingly-expanding denominations of the religious affiliation, especially with attempts to deviate from the true gospel for selfish reasons; providing relief for Christians and sometimes, non-Christians as well affected by natural or man-made crisis, among others.

However, the problem of forming a united front continues to dog the association. Current president of the organisation, Reverend Dr Samson Ayokunle, in an interview with TribuneChurch, had spoken on concerns relating to Christian unity, in the light of challenges faced by the body with the election that led to his emergence as president of CAN.

He said: “Before now, we’ve had groups going round to ensure unity. I’ve also travelled around the country, meeting with those who matter within CAN to preach the gospel of unity, otherwise, the inauguration wouldn’t have been possible. We even met with ex-presidents of CAN as well. We need everybody because a house divided against itself cannot stand. What we are saying is that the enemies we have outside are more, and we shouldn’t be having crisis among ourselves.

“You know, some Christians, if not many, are naive and it is by allowing Christian leaders to speak out that we can awake their consciences. Danger is coming and you are feeling relaxed. In a documentary I watched, while two gazelles fought, a lion was lurking nearby. The lion moved closer till it attacked them. Thank God they were not two lions. I think that is what Christians are doing. They attack their leaders, have no respect for them. I think other religious adherents in this nation are teaching us how to respect our leaders. We wash our dirty linen in public squares, parading holier-than-thou attitudes; it’s naivety. I think I need to beg Christians to begin to respect our collective front by respecting the people we have put there to serve.”

 

Major strides

An entire edition of a newspaper would do meagre justice to the achievements of the Christian community in Nigeria, which have been monumental and cut across various sectors of the polity. Education (primary, secondary and tertiary), governance, agriculture, economy, health, to mention a few, are areas Christianity in Nigeria has had major impact.

Christendom in the country has also been responsible for bridging the gaps in national life, as it relates to creating awareness on various issues as they affect the individual, society and nation in general. A current example is the awareness being created on the forthcoming general election, as church leaders and members are calling for more participatory action in politics, in order to ensure quality governance, which will, in turn, better the society, and would improve the lives of both Christians and non-Christians.

This is not to say that the church has not come under scrutiny, owing to various excesses usually evident in flamboyant lifestyle of its leaders, perverted values even within church confines, and general moral degeneration, which is seemingly on the increase, in spite of sermons to the contrary, which many clerics have laid at the table of prosperity messages.

 

The Christian faith and persecution

Quite commendable is attempts by church leaders in Nigeria to ensure religious harmony, sometimes in the face of obvious contention. Although many have argued that Christians have a right to defend themselves when provoked, the Christian community must be lauded on showing the peaceful example, in line with what Christ teaches, of tolerance in times of religious crisis. Participation in the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council, as well as the establishment of an international inter-faith religious centre in Kaduna, are a few of the numerous ways Christianity has shown commitment to peaceful coexistence.

To state that Christians have suffered persecution over the years would be stating the obvious. Till now, these persecutions are still present, evident in the labelling of Nigeria as the 14th world’s worst country in the world for Christians by renowned religious organisation, Open Doors.

Boko Haram terror attacks in the North; the southern Kaduna attacks, as well other allegations of persecution-related crisis in other parts of the country, have all contributed, in no small measure to threatening the Christian faith in Nigeria.

General Overseer of Christ Evangelical Intercessory Fellowship Ministry, Sabon Tasha, Kaduna, and founder of Peace Revival and Reconciliation Foundation, Pastor Yohanna Buru, knows well about Christian persecution, as a result of occurrences in his area, and has focused his ministry on ensuring peaceful co-existence among the religious affiliations.

Speaking on the peculiarities of his ministry, he stated: “The ministry has, over the years, engaged itself in evangelism, preaching the gospel and counselling the people to embrace peace. We equally take care of the needs of the widows and orphans. As time went on, I established an interfaith foundation, the Peace Revival and Reconciliation Foundation. I witnessed the horrible experiences associated with the conflicts that erupted in Kaduna over the years. For instance, I witnessed the Hausa/Fulani and Adara/Gbagi land dispute of 1980 at Kasuwar Magani where people who had lived together as brothers and sisters for hundreds of years started fighting over land. I also witnessed the Maitashine religious crisis of 1982, then I was in Badarawa and I saw people that had lived in the same street killing each other in the name of religion; the 1987 Kafanchan crisis, as well as the 1992 Zango Kataf crisis. Other crises that I witnessed included the 2000 sharia crisis; the 2002 ThisDay beauty pageant crisis; the 2011 post elections crisis, as well as the 2012 bomb blast at Wusasa in Zaria and Trikaniya in Kaduna. So, in 2012, I told myself since God spared my life after witnessing these crises, I would contribute to the sustenance of peace in the state and the country at large. That’s how the foundation came about.

“It is true that I have been visiting and interacting with prominent Islamic scholars or clerics. To be candid, my understanding of Islam was greatly enriched through this interaction. For instance, I first got to know about Ibrahim El-Zakzaky as far back as 1978 or 1979. The impression I got then was he was not a man of peace. Interestingly, this view had been propagated by his fellow Muslim brothers. However, my perception about him changed when, in 1995, during the time of Abacha, there was this controversy that Abacha was trying to stop the Muslims from performing hajj. Then one day, I was standing in front of Bamaiyi house, along Ahmadu Bello way, when I saw a very large crowd of people chanting Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!! Allahu Akbar!!! Sai Zakzaky! in a procession, all dressed in black. From where I was standing I could see the heads of the people as far as NEPA roundabout. I asked someone who the man was that led such an incredible crowd and I was told that it was El-Zakzaky. I told myself if somebody could do this without fear of soldiers since it was during the military era, then there was something unique about him. I understood he wanted justice.

“I am somebody who likes to see that justice is done, so my perception about the man began to change. I decided to investigate this great man. Before I got to know Sheikh Ahmed Gummi, I knew his biological father. I was living in Badarawa and later moved to Alimi road just close to where the late Gummi was staying and preaching. When I was passing by I would stay and listened to his sermon in the mosque. One thing that struck me about late Gummi was his view that the Koran and Hadith advised Muslims to live in peace with their neighbours, so he was always preaching to his adherents to live in peace with the Christians. I knew Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi also through his sermon as far back as 1980. There was something he said that attracted him to me. He said that Christianity was built on the foundation of mercy, while Islam was built on the foundation of peace. He went ahead to say that Muslims owed Christians a lot because when Islam was introduced, Muslims were persecuted so Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) sent his adherents to a Christian ruler who offered them succour.”

 

The Bible teaches us to love our enemies —Pastor Buru

Speaking on how he came to his understanding of Islam, he said: “Naturally, I am somebody who loves peace and I don’t take interfaith issues for granted. So, I began to read the writings of the sunnis, shia and darika. One thing I discovered is that in spite of their differences, none of the sect ignored the Koran or the sunnah of their prophet. So, why will their differences be my concern? I have tremendous respect for each of them. Likewise, I believe they have this respect for me. For instance, I don’t need an usher to take me to the house of El-Zazzaky. When I was to travel to Iran and my passport was not ready, he facilitated my journey. Also, when he was travelling to Switzerland, he nominated me to travel with him. So nobody can brainwash me about this man. I break fast with all of them in their places and share with them thoughts about religion and the need to live in peace. Even if they were my enemies, the Bible doesn’t teach me to hate but to love my enemies. These scholars impressed me beyond what imagination. I have received death threats from my Christians brothers telling me that I am this or that. One cleric expressed fears that I may be attacked but I told him if I am going to be killed for the country to remain in peace, I am not afraid to die. But I am glad that my Christian brothers have now started to reason and understand my crusade about peace. We are all guilty. Christians killed Muslims and likewise, Muslims killed Christians. Muslims persecuted Christians likewise, Christians persecuted the Muslims. I have also propagated dialogue.

“Peace is possible if only we want it. Both Christians and Muslims understand that peace is very important. We cannot live in isolation. We need each other. They are things that God blessed the Christians with that Muslims must benefit from and vice versa. Take for instance, the electronic gadgets we use in our homes. Some of these appliances are produced by the Chinese, many of whom are Buddhists. Government must ensure that people live in peace. They should work out ways to ensure that Muslims live in areas dominated by Christians, likewise, Christians should live in areas dominated by Muslims. Religious leaders from both the faiths should preach peaceful coexistence because people still respect them. Our foundation has done a lot in peace building as well as reconciling feuding communities.”

 

Reprisals only destroy —Archbishop Kaigama

President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria and Archbishop of Jos, Most Reverend Ignatius Kaigama, who spoke on the need to take the issue of religious freedom seriously in the light of recent events, and if Christians should take up arms in self-defence, noted that “The phrases ‘kill them,’ ‘retaliate,’ is not the vocabulary of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has a different way of approaching this issue. We are not advocating for tit-for-tat as the question suggests. When we begin to engage in violence to solve violence, we only multiply violence. And the Christian message is very clear about that. Jesus Christ teaches us not to discriminate or do bad things to others. If other people kill in the name of religion, our religion, as Christians, does not allow that.

“However, that does not mean we should sit down and just allow anybody burn our houses, destroy our means of livelihood and even kill. We have a right to self-defence. Self-defence is not about just attacking people. That somebody threatens your life, you have the legitimate right to defend yourself. Even in human and divine law, this is allowed. However, when you hear people say ‘kill everybody,’ that is not the message of Jesus. Killing doesn’t solve anything, from whichever side it is carried out. We must stress that. It will only create more violence, more tension and will only destroy the country we are trying to build.”

As Christianity in Nigeria takes a seemingly assured step towards its 146th year, and beyond, with the opening up of more denominations, and snippets of variance in their doctrines, the question of unity continues to ring true on all fronts. One can only hope that indeed, however divergent personal interpretations of belief systems hold, they may all, indeed, be one as Christ expects.

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