The simple gesture of helping a neighbour in need has led to friendship between a local Muslim farmer and two missionary priests in the town of Miya, setting an example for inter-religious peacebuilding in Nigeria.
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By Fr. Justine John Dyikuk
North-Eastern Nigeria has long been a flashpoint of political upheavals and ethno-religious tensions, often leading to conflicts between Christian and Muslim. But stories of leaders of different religions working together in Nigeria show the power of simple gestures for inter-religious peacebuilding.
A simple story of inter-religious peacebuilding
One such story comes from two St Patrick’s Missionary Society (SPS) Priests working in the parish of St Luke’s Miya in Bauchi State, and Baba Usman Mohammed, a local farmer in Miya. The two priests – Fathers Emmanuel Edet (a Nigerian from Cross River State) and Patrick Esekon (a Kenyan national) shared the story of their life-changing encounter with Mohammed.
In February of this year, Baba Usman Mohammed – a Muslim neighbour of the priests, was knocked down by a horse whilst riding his motorbike. He sustained multiple fractures on both legs, which was a huge setback for his wife and 5 children who depended on him to put food on the table. Thinking of the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’, the two missionaries felt a duty to respond to the need of their Muslim neighbour. They knew that he could not possibly provide food for his family in the state he was in, and so appealed to members of the church to bring food to give to Mohammed’s family. One Sunday morning after mass, the food items were gathered by the church council and brought to Mohammed. He was most delighted and grateful at the gesture from his Christian neighbours. The priests also learnt that Mohammed could not pay for medical treatment, and so they decided to bring him to Albishir Hospital for proper medical attention. Since July, the priests have been paying for Mohammed’s hospital bill, which includes physiotherapy three times a week. Mohammed is now able to walk with crutches.
The priests are optimistic that the bridge they have built with Mohammed could be used by others for social and inter-religious exchanges. Fr. Edet explains, “‘In my experience in Miya, there abound many opportunities for us as Christians to foster our friendship with our Muslim brothers and sisters. I believe the ideas of Nostra Aetate, of Muslims and Christians working together to promote peace, liberty and social justice could be achieved by each one of us here in the North of Nigeria by finding answer for oneself to this simple question – ‘Who is my neighbour?’/”
Nostra Aestate is the Vatican Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christians, through which the Church has asked Muslims and Christians to forget the tensions of the past and urged that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding. For Fr. Edet, “when mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims is realized, then together we can preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values…”
Gestures like those made between the priests and Mohammad opens up the doors of friendship between Muslims and Christians. In Miya, the Christians have continued to work towards peace through these simple gestures, opening up their football pitch so that Muslim youths can also play football every evening. The Muslim youths wear football jerseys donated by Fr. Leo Traynor of SPS in Ireland, showing Muslims and Christians embracing each other from far apart. The doors of friendship continue to stay open in Miya, with Muslims and Christians working together to erect a school fence, a dormitory, a toilet and a church in St Luke’s Pastoral Area. They tell how “together we are working to build up the reign of God here in Miya.”
Their work is simple: “We are engaged in dialogue every day with our Muslim brothers and Sisters in Miya only that we do so not with the sophisticated language of ‘inter-religious dialogue, but by seeking ways to respond to the needs of a Muslim neighbour.” Such work reinforces the indispensable role of religious leaders in local peacebuilding.
All leaders have something to learn from this. A simple evening walk, or the act of sharing a football pitch between Christians and Muslims can open up new avenues to peace. No doubt, the encounter between the two missionaries and Mohammed will remain a mountain from which peace can be proclaimed in North-Eastern Nigeria and beyond.
Fr. Justine John Dyikuk is a Catholic priest, freelance writer/poet and public affairs commentator from Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
This article was originally published by Insight on Conflict and is available by clicking here.