From Nigeria, a case study in fighting backFATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
Christian populations in Arab lands are too small to defend themselves. Not so in Africa.
Jan. 1 is marked in the Catholic Church as the World Day of Peace, for which the pope issues an annual message. The theme Benedict XVI chose for this year was religious liberty. His words were made terribly relevant even before the sun rose on 2011.
"I wish to say a word to the Christian communities suffering from persecution, discrimination, violence and intolerance, particularly in Asia, in Africa, in the Middle East and especially in the Holy Land, a place chosen and blessed by God," he wrote. "I ask all those in authority to act promptly to end every injustice against the Christians living in those lands. In the face of present difficulties, may Christ's followers not lose heart."
Quoting from Paul VI's Message for the 1976 World Day of Peace, Benedict XVI declared: "We ourselves lay down the condition and the extent of the mercy we ask for when we say: 'And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us' (Mt 6:12)." And then: "Violence is not overcome by violence. May our cries of pain always be accompanied by faith, by hope and by the witness of our love of God."
It is true that Christians, professing faith in the Crucified One, must pursue the path of mercy and reconciliation. But what if those who hate Christians are not interested in reconciliation? I can lay down my life in the face of such hatred, as the martyrs of every generation have done. Yet can I lay down the lives of others? Do the Christian leaders in such places have a duty to protect their communities – even by recourse to force? It is a terribly difficult question, especially because any resistance might provoke still further massacres.
In the Middle East, where Christians, even in Egypt, are a small, and sometimes tiny, minority, the consensus view has been that even robust rhetoric is too much of a risk. When living beside murderous Muslim fanatics, the path of least resistance can understandably appear to be the only path to survival.
The experience of Christians elsewhere is different. For example, Christians in Nigeria have argued for years now that the experience of the fearful and defenceless minorities in the Arab world cannot determine the global response of world Christianity. The Nigerian Christian response to Muslim violence was not of the turn-the-other-cheek variety. To be sure, Christians in Nigeria are a larger group, and more able to resist the Islamification pushed by their Muslim neighbours. John Allen, in his book The Future Church, recounts some of that experience:
"Even in the north [of Nigeria], there are encouraging signals," he writes. "In Kaduna, Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye have established the Interfaith Mediation Centre, where they train pairs of imams and pastors to fan out wherever violence begins to stir. (Wuye lost his right hand battling Muslims when he led Christian militias in the 1990s.) Their efforts have been credited with preventing bloodshed. Yet there is a troubling footnote. Many Nigerian Christians, as well as some Muslims, believe a fragile peace has been achieved in part because Christians answered violence from the Muslim side with violence of their own. Without this capacity of Christians to push back, these observers say, Muslim leaders might never have agreed to negotiate a truce. Even Imam Sani Isah of the Waff Road Mosque in Kaduna ruefully concedes that's probably correct. Nigerian Christians thus know peaceful co-existence with Muslims is possible, because most have Muslim neighbours, colleagues and friends. At the same time, experience has taught them that in dealing with religious zealots and bullies, sometimes strength has to be answered by strength."
While the Arab world dominates the Western imagination in regard to Islam, it is not the only place of Christian-Muslim encounter. The Nigerians – where Christians and Muslims have had some success in making a common stand against radicalism – may have something to teach us.
The stakes are high. Christians and Muslims cannot afford an all-out inter-religious conflagration – aside from being an offence against God, the killing would be immense. Still, the question must be asked: Against the sword of Islam, does the path to peace require unsheathing a defensive sword, or at least raising a shield?
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "From Nigeria, a case study in fighting back." National Post, (Canada) January 6, 2011.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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