Churches in Nigeria lead relief effort for victims of religious riots

Thursday, April 13, 2000

LAGOS, 13 April 2000 (Newsroom) – Churches throughout Nigeria continue to send relief supplies to help more than 50,000 people displaced by religious riots in the city of Kaduna in February. Many churches in the state of Kaduna have turned their compounds into rehabilitation centers as well and are assisting orphans and others left homeless by the fighting.

Although the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs appealed for assistance for the victims after the fighting stopped, contributions by Muslim groups have been minimal. Most of the dead, injured, and displaced are Christian, but church rehabilitation centers are helping Muslims as well, church leaders say.

At the urging of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Christians have donated tons of food, clothing, and medical supplies to resettle victims now living in various rehabilitation centers in the state. "The response has been tremendous," said Daniel Sola of CAN’s Kaduna office. "We have received a lot of materials for the victims from various denominations." The federal government also has sent supplies.

More than 400 people died in a week of fighting that began February 21 when Christians demonstrating against the introduction of Sharia penal law were attacked by Muslim youths. Until the army restored peace several days later, homes, businesses, and places of worship were destroyed. Christians bore the brunt of the injuries and damage.

Nigeria’s constitution permits Sharia law as it relates to domestic matters such as inheritance and adoption, but does not allow Islamic penal law, which permits punishments such as flogging, amputation, and beheading for certain crimes. Eight northern Nigeria states had begun to introduce Sharia law when fighting began in Kaduna.

The Council of States, whose members include the president and all 36 state governors, agreed last month to suspend the implementation of Sharia, an agreement that was broken with the amputation of a convicted thief’s hand in Zamfara state.

While President Olusegun Obasanjo tries to weather the backlash of criticism for the federal government’s lack of response to the spread of Sharia and subsequent calls for a national debate on the future of Nigeria, churches are continuing their work.

The Redeem Christian Church of God (RCCG), the country's largest Pentecostal church, acquired a four-bedroom house with a large compound to care for families of affected members. "Many of the victims who were initially despondent are now hopeful (because of) tremendous support of other brethren," said Biodun Coker, state pastor of the church.

Seventy-six orphans who lost both parents and 27 widows have taken refuge at the Assembly of God compound, while 150 families whose homes were destroyed are staying at Hekan Church. Another 400 people are living at St. Augustine (Military) Church.

At a government rehabilitation center in the Nasarawa area of the state, about 3,000 Christians and 5,000 Muslims, mainly indigens, are living together. To reconcile the two groups Christian and Muslim leaders are preaching messages of unity and co-existence.

"Muslims are not your enemies. Christians should not retaliate. That is not what Jesus taught us," said Pastor Enoch Adeboye, general overseer of RCCG.

During a meeting on Monday with a 19-man delegation of CAN officials, Nigeria Vice President Atiku Abubakar commended Christian leaders in the northern part of the country for their role in restoring peace in states that have witnessed sectarian clashes.

"The partnership between you and the federal government is to ensure that peace and stability reigns in the country," said Abubakar, a Muslim. "If there is no peace it will be difficult to worship God."

Archbishop Peter Jatau, who led the CAN delegation, pledged that Christians would continue to pray for peace and the survival of the present government. Obasanjo, who describes himself as a born-again Christian, is Nigeria’s first elected leader in two decades. The majority of Nigeria’s 40 years since independence have been marked by military rule.

The vice president's meeting with the Christian leaders followed a similar one with Muslim leaders in the north during which they agreed again to suspend the implementation of Sharia.

Traditional rulers and leaders meeting in Kaduna last week said religious leaders need to promote peace and unity among their followers. Religion should not be allowed to threaten the existence of Nigeria, they said. In a prepared statement they concluded, "If we want this country to grow and develop we must give peace a chance."

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Used with permission.