Will Muslims and Christians let Boko Haram set the agenda?

John Allen reports from Nigeria on inter-faith relations

It would certainly be understandable if the almost 1,000 Nigerian Christians today living in a crude camp for internally displaced people called New Kuchingoro, located outside the capital city of Abuja, weren’t feeling very charitable right now toward Muslims.

These are Christians, after all, who’ve been driven from their homes by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. They’ve lost the farms where they once made a comfortable living raising beans, and they’ve seen their villages razed to the ground.

Virtually everyone has had relatives slaughtered, sometimes by beheading or being burned alive, and often while gathered in church. Now they face appalling living conditions in the camp, where at least eight people have died since their arrival a year and a half ago.

There’s no work, and little to do except ponder their own agony.

Yet remarkably, the camp also contains a small group of 31 Muslims who’ve been accepted and welcomed by the 923 Christians. They play cards together, they share food and help care for one another’s children, and they gather to watch soccer matches on a small community TV.

“We are friends,” said Philemon Emmanuel, the camp’s informal leader and spokesman.


When I ask Emmanuel how he avoids feeling angry, he has a simple explanation.

“If these Muslims ran away, it means they weren’t the bad guys,” he said. “The fact that they’re here means they’re victims, too.”

The fellowship of suffering in the New Kuchingoro camp illustrates one of the least appreciated aspects of the Boko Haram story: That the group’s rise has not only split Christians and Muslims apart, it’s also brought them together in striking and unpredictable ways.

In microcosm, the camp captures perhaps the single most important unresolved question raised by Boko Haram, which is blamed for 17,000 deaths since 2009.

The question is: Will most Christians and Muslims here overcome their differences, offering the world a precious example of a society that refuses to play into the terrorists’ hands? Or will they be driven further apart, and end up simply waiting for the next cycle of violence to erupt?

To be honest, after spending the last week in Nigeria, one has the sense that things could go either way.

On Wednesday night, I was asked to give a talk on anti-Christian persecution at Abuja’s glittering National Christian Centre, a neo-gothic ecumenical cathedral built under former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, to rival the city’s National Mosque.

Both the cathedral and the mosque now dominate Abuja’s landscape, a symbol of the way that Muslims and Christians here are fated to live together.

Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja was the chairman for the evening, and he invited several Muslim friends — precisely because he didn’t want it to turn into an occasion for beating up on Islam.

One of those Muslims rose to remind me that we had met eight years ago when I was in Abuja and visited the mosque. He said he wanted to applaud my assertion that rational followers of all religions, those who reject violence and embrace dialogue, have more in common with one another than with the extremists in their own camps.

That seemed to augur well, but he added a worrying coda: My visit to the mosque in 2007, it turns out, had stirred controversy after I left. My friend said he took heat from fellow Muslims for bringing an ‘infidel’ into their midst.

“Sorry I was the infidel who got you into trouble,” I replied, drawing laughter from the crowd.

The same juxtaposition of hope and alarm can be found up and down the country.

You’ll find stories of Muslims gathering to defend Christian churches on Sundays in Boko Haram hotspots, and Christians returning the favour by turning out to protect mosques on Fridays. You can find Muslims who say they’re so horrified by what Boko Haram has unleashed that they’ve worked even harder to strengthen their ties with Christians.

Yet for every such voice, there are also Nigerians such as Musa Audu Badung, an Evangelical Christian from the northern Plateau state. He said his father converted from Islam to Christianity in 1973, and he grew up hearing “terrible things” about Islam.

His own attitudes have hardened, in large part because of his experience, including seeing the corpses of 60 Christians in a nearby village burned to death inside their church. On the back of all that, he isn’t in a terribly tolerant mood.

“Christianity to me is a religion,” he says bluntly, “but Islam is a cult.”

Whether Christians and Muslims are able to make it work here is of more than merely local interest. Nigeria is the largest country in the world in which roughly equal populations of both faiths live cheek by jowl — as Imam Sani Isah of the Waff Road Mosque in Kaduna puts it, it’s “Saudi Arabia and the Vatican rolled into one”.

Inevitably, therefore, what happens in Nigeria will have reverberations all around the world.

Ordinary Nigerians, Christians and Muslims alike, may not be able to control what happens with Boko Haram, though most enthusiastically cheered when the country’s new government under President Muhammadu Buhari — for the record, a Muslim with a reputation for religious seriousness — vowed to wipe it out within three months.

What they can control, however, is whether they allow Boko Haram to set the agenda for their relationship. Much depends on what they decide.


John Allen Jr is Associate Editor of cruxnow.com