Two noteworthy incidents of religious significance occurred in the week of October 10-14.
Though thousands of kilometers apart, they were linked by faith and their lasting impact on the two leading African nations in particular and humanity in general.
One of the two incidents, separated by about 48 hours from the other occurred in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, Egypt. The other took place in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city.
The Nigerian event was the three-day (October 11-13, 2018) conference on “Religious Harmony in Nigeria: towards the 2019 General Election” convened by the Interfaith Initiative for Peace (IIP).
The IIP is a body of Nigeria’s eminent religious leaders co-chaired by the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammed Sa’ad Adubakar and the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onyaiyekan. It had a similar outing before the 2015 general elections.
In his widely reported speech on Saturday, October 13, President Muhammadu Buhari thanked the conveners for their love of Nigeria and promotion of peaceful co-existence of Muslims and Christians.
He expressed special appreciation to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby for his “ love for Nigeria and her people” and all his “ efforts in informing Britain and other nations about the true state of affairs in Nigeria.”
Beyond the pleasantries, President Buhari urged aggrieved politicians to seek peaceful redress through their parties or law courts and expressed hope that the campaigns leading to the February 2019 elections and the entire electoral process would be done “without resorting to negative use of religion and ethnicity”
Archbishop Welby who gave the key note address urged the Nigerian government and the politicians to ensure credible elections next year as doing such was the surest route to peace and progress.
He added that though peace was a universal concept, it was conditional and required respect and justice to be effective. He urged religious leaders to stand up for truth and be ready to speak truth to power.
Sultan Abubakar and Cardinal Onyaiyekan urged the security agencies and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to ensure fairness and neutrality in their conduct all through the electoral processes.
The Alexandria event of October 11, 2018 made global headlines: “Egypt court sentences 17 to death for attacking Christians” with variations and adaptations to other print and electronic media.
The death verdict was passed by an Egyptian military court for the convicts’ involvement in a suicide bombing inside a Cairo chapel beside St Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of Egypt’s ancient Coptic Orthodox Church in December 2016 which led to the death of at least 25 worshippers.
The court also issued life sentences to 19 defendants and 15-year prison terms to another nine for terror-related charges.
Apart from the December 2016 attack, others were convicted of plotting twin suicide bombings in churches in Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday in April 2017 leading to the death of no fewer than 45 people.
A comparison of the religious profiles of Nigeria and Egypt and their respective approaches to religious terrorism is quite revealing.
Whereas the Nigerian population is shared almost equally between Christianity and Islam, Christians in the Arab Republic of Egypt account for between 10 and 20percent of the population. Their two presidents – Nigeria’s Buhari and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – are ex-military rulers and both Muslims.
The Egyptian leader took power in 2014 while Buhari was sworn in as democratically elected president on May 29, 2015. In both countries, Islamic militancy is fuelled by extremists affiliated to the Islamic State (IS).
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood founded in 1928 as an Islamist religious, political and Social movement has in recent times come under the ambit of the Islamic State group in the Sinai Peninsula.
A splinter faction of Boko Haram is affiliated to the Islamic State group in the West African region. Christians are the major targets of the militants.
It is curious, however, that in recent years, the anti-Christian attacks in Nigeria have escalated making this nation the most dangerous for Christians in the world despite their huge population.
But the differences between Nigeria and Egypt’s anti-terrorism fight, particularly religious terrorism, are very glaring.
While Egypt hunts, apprehends and punishes Islamic extremists, the Nigerian state under the current dispensation handles them with kid gloves.
Hundreds of extremists have been tried and summarily sentenced in Egypt since the heightening of their operations in 2013.
Nigerian extremists are rewarded with pardons, prisoner-swaps and dollar-denominated ransoms.
Rigorous prosecutions and convictions are rare in Nigeria despite wanton killings of Christians, burning of churches and abduction of young Christian girls who are forcefully converted into Islam and married or turned into sex slaves.
The heightened attacks by Fulani herdsmen who seem to be collaborating with the Islamic militants have further endangered the safety of Christians in Nigeria.
The outcomes of the October 10- 14 events in Nigeria and Egypt merely epitomised the critical disparities in the dispensation of justice in the fight against religious terrorism.
While Justice – simply defined as the administration of law according to prescribed and accepted principles – – is evident in Egypt’s anti- terrorism paradigm, it is glaringly absent in the Nigerian case.
While the culprits are captured, tried and punished in Egypt as entailed in the application of justice, they are let loose in Nigeria.
Thus, while the sentencing in Alexandria had the note of finality and deterrence, the otherwise well- intentioned confab in Abuja was just another round of talks without any consequences for the killers and troublers of the nation’s peace.
They showed their disdain for passive talks and defiance with the killing of the Interactional Red Cross aid worker, Hauwa Liman within days of the Abuja confab.
Egypt may not have seen the last of anti-Christian terror but the sentencing of October 11, 2018 and others before them are a loud and clear message to the harbingers of hate and death that their actions would be visited with consequences.
Despite the reservations about trials by military courts and the propriety of the death penalty, there seems to be no better way of dealing with militants who deploy deadly weapons against unarmed people whose only sin is their faith.
Religious Harmony – – a state of peaceful agreement and cooperation – – as a prelude to peaceful and credible elections as espoused by the Interfaith Initiative for Peace is well thought out and desirable. But can it be achieved in the midst of glaring injustices?