Peter Akinola, Anglican archbishop and president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) issued some controversial warnings during February's deadly violence between Christians and Muslims. A couple weeks after the clashes he explained his concerns for the church and his nation to CT associate editor Collin Hansen.
What is the greatest challenge for the church in Nigeria?
How are we going to convince our Muslim neighbors and our governments that Nigerian Christians have no other place to call their country but this country? Since 1988, people have been maimed and brutally murdered, their hard-earned money and property destroyed by hooligans, by murderers, all on account of religion. And no one has been brought to justice that we know of. Usually arrests are made, but before you know what is happening they are released, so it's like they're doing this with impunity. So our challenge, therefore, is how we're going to get everybody in this country to know that Nigeria belongs to all of us.
I have been in touch with my Muslim counterpart this whole time, and we are hoping that we can meet soon, so we can work together and see how we can get our followers to understand.
What do you hope to hear from your Muslim counterpart?
Muslims cannot claim that Nigeria is theirs. Now Christians are doing the same. All of us agree that we have to learn to live together. From my point of view, the unity of this country is a done deal. They can't begin to talk of dividing along religious lines. They can't do that, because everywhere you go there are Muslims; everywhere you go there are Christians. But in some parts there are more Christians, in other parts there are more Muslims. But you cannot say "southern Christian" or "northern Muslim." In the north there are seven or eight states where Christians are the majority. So you can't say a northern region is a Muslim area.
There must be integration of the two. That is what we have to work at. And I'm sure the sultan of Sokoto, who is the head of the Muslims in Nigeria, is also very anxious that we can work along those lines. I'm very hopeful.
In February some Muslims rioted in the north about the Danish cartoons of Muhammad and killed some Christians. You responded that Christian efforts to peacefully coexist have been misunderstood by the Muslims as weakness.
That's right. I said that because if they knew that we are willing to retaliate or to fight, if we had been doing things their way, Nigeria would have ceased to exist. If, for instance, the Christians are mobilized to destroy Muslims who live among them, we are a majority. What would happen to Nigeria? It would not exist anymore. That's why I said they have misunderstood our peace approach as our weakness. If they knew that we are stronger in number than they are, would they do this to us? They wouldn't do it. But I believe that, God helping us, the message will get across after our meeting with their leaders in the next couple of weeks.
You also said that Muslims "do not have a monopoly on violence in this nation" and that CAN "may no longer be able to contain our restive youths should this ugly trend continue." The day after you released those statements, some Christians retaliated.
No. You are getting it wrong. You are not within our context. The entire Western press tried to demonize me on this matter. And you are wrong. But I only ask God to forgive the Western press for the way they tried to handle this matter. You do not understand what we are going through here. [The CAN] youth have never been satisfied with us, the elders. They say we are compromising with the government. They want to retaliate. And we have always been telling them, "You can't do that. You are Christians, you must not do things the way others do things." And so far we've been successful. But the question now is for how long will this be? These boys are becoming more and more restive and beginning to doubt our integrity.
So, I have to remind the nation, not Muslims, that no one has a monopoly on violence. But thank God, so far, we have been able to control our youths.
Now, the attacks were not a result of what I said. What happened was that the corpses of those [Christians] killed in [the northern city of] Maiduguri were brought down to [the southern city of] Onitsha in trucks. As they were unloading them, the youth saw what was happening. They were simply mad. It wasn't what I said at all. I've said this many, many times in the past. But I usually do that to put the Muslims in checkto put the murderous ones among them in check. That is the purpose of that statement.
It's tough for us in the West to really understand all the dimensions of your local context.
It's not just you. It's the entire Western press. I've been getting phone calls, but I said no, I'm not going to talk. If they want to know what's happening, come to our country. Since 1988, where there's suffering, this comes from our Muslim neighbors. We have never on our own initiated any attack on anybody. Never. And that's because our youth were willing to take our advice. But now they're accusing us and calling us nameswhat do we do?
We could say, "Okay, go ahead." But we would never do that. Our religion, our Christian faith, our love of God, our love of fatherland, would never allow us to do that.
During a recent CAN meeting, I threatened to resign, because the youth were saying they were going to go to fight and cause more trouble. If they cause more trouble, I will resign. Everybody sat down, kept quiet. We can't destroy this country. Violence is not the answer.
We are working between two evils. But like I said, we've been able to control these boys, and we're going to try everything we can. But our word must be credible to them.
Why do the youth want to fight back?
They're simply bitter, they're simply angry. They're simply fed up with it. And they say to themselves that maybe if we fight back, the [Muslims] will know they don't have the right to take life at will. So it isn't that their Christian religion is telling them to go out and fight. You forget, in the West, the Crusades were a response to 400 years of Islamic aggression in Europe. Don't forget that. Don't you ever forget that. They didn't just happen for the fun of it.
We pray that [this violence] will never happen again. So, we talk to the governors, Muslim leaders, other agencies. But we have to insist that all those arrested this time must be brought to justice. This is important for future peaceful coexistence. If these boys are arrested but get away with it, then the future is bleak.
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