A Discussion with Father George Olusegun Ajana of the Pontifical Mission Societies (PMS), Nigeria
Background: As part of the Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding Fellowship, Christopher O'Connor interviewed Rev. Fr. George Olusegun Ajana, National Director of the Mission Nigeria, Pontifical Mission Societies (PMS.) He is responsible for overseeing the organizations four branches in Nigeria: Holy Childhood Association, St. Peter the Apostle, Pontifical Mission Union, and Propagation of the Faith. The first three are all internal bodies that function within the confines of the Catholic Church. It is only the Propagation of the Faith that is involved in evangelization, seeking converts. PMS is not directly engaged in peacebuilding activities; however, it is engaged in evangelization, which is often a point of conflict between Muslim and Christian communities in Nigeria. Ajana works to ensure that PMS’s approach to evangelization is conflict sensitive.
Interview Conducted on July 1, 2010
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I understand that the Pontifical Mission Societies is not directly involved with peacebuilding efforts. However, some Nigerians claim that there is an air of distrust between Christians and Muslims, wherein both fear domination and conversion by the other faith. As a representative of a Catholic organization that evangelizes, what is your perspective on interreligious relations in Nigeria?
The situation, the interreligious relationship between Christians and Muslims, and animists to a lesser extent, is not something that I frequently get involved with in my line of work. But it is something that we must be conscious of at PMS.
The Pontifical Mission Society consists of four bodies: Holy Childhood Association, St Peter the Apostle, Pontifical Missionary Union, and Propagation of the Faith. The four bodies are special instruments of the Pope for world evangelization. Evangelization, however, can be both an internal and an external exercise. The first three bodies work to reinforce the Catholic faith in the hearts and minds of Catholics. It is only the Propagation of the Faith that is involved in mission work and assisting missionaries in their work of evangelization all over the world. This is much about proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. In theory, these efforts could lead to increased conflict with Muslim communities, but in practice we are very conflict sensitive.
What makes the Propagation of the Faith’s evangelization methods conflict sensitive?
Let me use one instance of evangelization as an example of our conflict sensitivity. Three years ago we organized the National Mission Congress that tried to reach out to other Christians and non-Christians alike to preach our message, but it was structured to simply allow people to hear our message, not to impose it on others. The way we went about the National Mission Congress is the same way we go about evangelization throughout Nigeria. We preach to those who want to hear, and yet we allow them to decide whether to accept or reject our message. If they reject it, we simply move on. Religion is a choice made by individuals. It is not something that should be dictated, or forced on people. So we are conflict sensitive. In each diocese we have a PMS director, and each of our four societies has a coordinator. We work in all of Nigeria’s states to reach out to everyone.
If PMS’s evangelization is conflict sensitive, why is conversion so frequently referenced as a point of contention?
Unfortunately, there are fanatics on both sides who are more aggressive about spreading their belief systems. In Nigeria, we have experienced some religious clashes, but these do not engulf the entire country, just specific areas. These clashes destroy socioeconomic opportunities. Currently, the centers of interreligious violence are the cities of Jos and Kaduna, where the population is religiously mixed.
While most Christians and most Muslims are peaceful in Nigeria, these religious fanatics are intolerant. In some states in northern Nigeria our evangelization efforts have run into some resistance, but in general we don’t have too many issues. In Kano and Sokoto for example, the level of religious tolerance is low. You can go to church, but it would be very risky to publicly preach in order to convert people of other religions. In some of these states Muslims control the political structures as well. A prime example of this is Zamfara State, where Sharia law is imposed on everybody.
On the Christian side there are fanatics from various denominations too. Their interpretations of the Gospel allow no room for alternative beliefs. They believe that non-Christians are destined to go to hell. These beliefs incite Muslims. Yet, Nigeria is a secular state, but the judiciary cannot, or is not, properly addressing religious tensions.
Are there other forces at play that foment conflict between faith communities in Nigeria?
In addition to the religious fanatics on both sides, conflicts in Nigeria are often politically motivated. When you explore the causes of violence here, much seems to be rooted in politics. Dirty politics has been a serious motivator of religious violence. We have some very rough politicians who cause mayhem by paying gangsters to foment trouble. Some politicians just use violence to cause domestic distractions in order to divert people’s attention. Politicians will target other politicians’ communities sometimes, but the real target is the individual rival politician. This politically motivated violence spawns reprisal attacks.
When the present President Goodluck Jonathan was looking for a Vice President, he picked the former Governor of Kaduna, who is a Muslim. The Deputy Governor of Kaduna at that time was a Christian. Under the state’s constitution, when a Governor leaves, the Deputy Governor takes over. But the Muslims in Kaduna did not want a Christian Governor, resulting in increased religion tensions, but fortunately not violence.
The media also helps to exacerbate these religious and political tensions. Domestic and international media sources frequently misdiagnose violence in Nigeria, and in doing so, they actually incite more violence at times. The media blows things out of proportion, oversimplifying complex dynamics, sparking further conflicts. The media is not conflict sensitive.
How will recent political developments and the upcoming election affect interreligious relations in Nigeria?
Everyone right now is focused on the 2011 elections first. Once this is figured out, there may be religious tensions as a cover up for some political fighting. The incumbent president has not declared his interest in the office yet. If he declares his interest, there could be trouble from those who don’t like him. Yet, if he comes out publicly and says that he is not interested, he will become powerless and there may be an internal struggle for power, especially in his political party. This struggle very well could be expressed through religious clashes. Christians hopefully would be tolerant of a Muslim leader, assuming he is just.
What is the Catholic Church doing to resolve religious tensions in Nigeria?
The Catholic Church has been trying its best to prevent and also manage violence through dialogue. For example in the South Western Nigeria, Christians and Muslims live in peace. They even intermarry and participate in celebrations together. Increased contact leads to increased understanding and tolerance. This tolerance and understanding is what we hope to produce through dialogue elsewhere.
The Christian communities also have the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) trying to bring us together, and from there we try to dialogue with the Muslims. Of course there are tensions within CAN, but there is no violence. Additionally, the Muslims and the government have formed structures to promote dialogue.
What else could be done to promote peace and tolerance within Nigeria, in reference not only to the conflicts with religious dimensions, but more generally speaking?
If the political issues were resolved, the religious issues would die down. We need a good leader. The government needs to focus on development, not the personal wealth of those in the government. We need to get rid of god-fatherism and move towards a meritocratic system.
What lessons have you learned from your work at PMS that might be useful for others involved in evangelization in Nigeria so as to avert suspicion and conflict?
We must follow the injunction of Christ, preaching to all. If we are not accepted, we must move on. We should not be too forceful and imposing. Religion is a matter of choice to be made individually. We need to accept others’ views, advocating conversion by choice, as Christ would have us do it. Religion is a matter of persuasion. You cannot force people to accept ideas and faith.