Christian women, children and old men were cut down by machetes. Homes were burned. Hundreds were killed on a single Sunday evening in early March in villages outside of Jos, Nigeria. The violence was called “reprisal attacks.”
Nigerian Christian and Muslim leaders criticized the assaults. Both the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), two Washington-based organizations, lamented the conflict and called for prayer.
Yet most Baptists in North America probably know little about the clashes, the follow-up religious commentary and their own connectivity to the conflict.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is divided between Muslims and Christians. According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s world factbook, 50 percent of Nigerians are Muslims, 40 percent are Christians and 10 percent hold indigenous beliefs.
One of the religious and ethnic dividing lines is Jos, where conflict has erupted twice in two months.
When hundreds of Nigerians – Muslims and Christians – were killed in January, the city was placed under military curfew, according to BBC News.
Al Jazeera-TV reported that more than 200 people in March had been “butchered in a religious killing spree,” allegedly by “Muslim herdsmen.”
Al Jazeera said the assaults were considered reprisals for attacks two months earlier and that the conflict resulted from disputes over land rights, property ownership and economic control.
Some of Nigeria’s religious leaders have sought to downplay the role of religion in the clashes.
“International media will say that Christians and Muslims are killing each other,” Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Abuja told Vatican Radio. “But this is not the case because people don’t kill for religion, but for social, economic, tribal and cultural reasons.”
He identified the victims as the poor and said that the church was working to foster positive relationships between Christians and Muslims.
“[W]e try to join together to quell the violence and solve concrete political and ethnic problems,” said the archbishop.
“Religion is being used as a veneer or as a front or cover in order to take control of the state,” said Solomon Ishola, general secretary of the Nigerian Baptist Convention (NBC).
He told the BWA press office that the struggle was “between indigenous people and settlers.”
Ishola, a BWA vice president, pointed out that the Plateau State, where Jos is located, is a “traditionally Christian” state. The indigenous people are mostly Christians, and the settlers are mostly Muslims.
The Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar, said that the crisis resulted from economic, political and ethnic problems.
Nigeria’s foremost Muslim leader characterized the events as a “reprisal attack” and said it “was a wrong reaction,” noting that “vengeance belongs to Allah.”
“It is sad that ethnic rivalry in Plateau State has degenerated into deep ethnic hatred,” said Abubakar, who urged government authorities to “fish out the perpetrators of the dastardly killings and bring them to book without delay.”
Associated Press reported on Sunday that a Nigerian police spokesman said that 41 people had been arrested and charged with terrorism for the massacres. Others had also been arrested.
“We are saddened by the continued violence deeply impacting Christian communities in Nigeria, and regret the ongoing loss of human lives caused by this ethnic and religious unrest,” said Raimundo Barreto, the new director of the BWA’s division of freedom and justice.
Sayyid M. Syeed, national director of the office for interfaith and community alliances for ISNA, said, “We at ISNA want to express our concern and horror at the cycle of violence in Nigeria in recent days, which have led to the deaths of hundreds of Muslims and Christians.”
“We pray for peace, for good government and for truth,” said Syeed. “And we pray also that people may realize that the only way to survive in Nigeria is to recognize one another as brothers and citizens of the same nation.”
ISNA issued a statement after the January massacres that stated: “Playing on religious emotions to create divisions and incite people to violence is contrary to the teachings of Islam and Christianity. We particularly appeal to the wise leaders in the Muslim community to uphold the teachings of Islam which calls on its followers to respect religious diversity and human dignity. The correct way to uphold Islam is to show respect for human life and solidarity with the poor and the weak.”
Albeit a world away, the clashes are another reminder of the religious tinderbox that may ignite with little warning. Such clashes are also an opportunity for some forces to take advantage of conflict to fuel fear and feed anger toward another faith.
Our physical disconnection with Nigeria should not be misread as moral disconnection. In a 24/7 global society, we are connected and need to find a better way forward.
Rather than passivity about the prevailing tensions between Muslims and Christians, goodwill Baptists ought to take a proactive approach to advancing the common good.
Rooting the relationship between these two faiths in a common word – love for neighbor – instead of the clash of civilizations – is a better way forward.
That’s one of the reasons we produced “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims.” We thought a compelling documentary would equip goodwill Baptists to pursue interfaith engagement with Muslims. Granted, talking and working together is an uncomfortable challenge for many North American Baptists. So it is with peacemaking, breaking down the dividing walls of misunderstanding and mistrust.
We want to equip and to encourage goodwill North American Baptists to think globally and act locally. We think a good place to begin is by ordering and showing our DVD “Different Books, Common Word.”
And if you are in Charlotte, N.C., in June, join other goodwill Baptists to explore how Baptists and Muslims may foster good will.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.