Religion as face-off

by - 9th June 2010

This is not the church as I know it.  This is ECWA – the offspring of the Sudan Interior Mission, a five million strong Presbyterian denomination centred in Plateau State’s uneasy capital Jos.  Sassy, less solemn than the Anglican churches I know in Uganda and Sudan – and my hosts this week.

Kind, brave and perplexed by the Muslim enmity with which they are either forced to live – or migrate, a phenomenon now on the increase from this 99 per cent Christian area on Nigeria’s religious faultline.

It is an enmity punctuated sporadically by the most appallingly savage and meaningless slaughters, most recently in March this year. They say the Hausa Fulani are exploiting existing differences between tribes on the Plateau.  This I want to know more about.  One thing’s for sure: the old men who have nurtured this lively church deserve better of the ‘security’ services that permit these atrocities against their people with impunity.

They want the world to know – and for today, that’s me.  They describe the killings with cold horror – the reports of 375 corpses found after the most bloody attack in March; the trumped up excuses – a preacher who mentioned Mohammed in a sermon; a Christian girl who walked past a mosque on a Friday – as she had done every day of her life – to get to work; the lack of settler rights for the nomadic Hausa who came to Jos much much later than the indigenes they’re attacking – excuses that incomprehensibly set churches ablaze, see women and children hacked down, whole communities devastated.

‘It takes a lot to motivate Christians to violence’ says the Gen Sec of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) Samuel Salifu, sitting slumped behind his desk at their HQ in Abuja; slow-speaking, gentle and at a loss to know what lead to give.

‘Do you have a strategy?’  I have to repeat the question three times to him and his Head of National Issues and Social Welfare.  They do not seem to have an answer.

Instead they pray.

And out of the door and down the steps into the blinding light of the courtyard at midday and the extraordinary cathedral building opposite.  I am awed by its bravura accomplishment – but even more awed at the sheer scale of the Saudi-funded mosque not 200 yards down the road, which simply dwarfs it and the town itself, with its gold dome and four assertive minarets like mighty tent pegs, staking out their fantastically assertive claim to this place in a way no one can mistake.

So CAN has built its offices in a tower that thrusts hundreds of feet sheer into the air, breathtakingly daring, with a cross embedded into the design.

This is religion as face-off.  As another leader, the barrister and General Secretary of of  the Christian Council of Nigeria Pastor Ogbe says of the excuses for the violence:  ‘It’s bollocks’.