YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – After one Nigerian woman was killed over accusations of blaspheming Islam and another is set to stand trial for similar charges, a leading Catholic prelate in the country has denounced so-called “blasphemy laws” as a violation of basic freedoms.
“No person should be silenced or imprisoned for peacefully sharing their views,” said Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of the national capital of Abuja.
The comments came in the wake of the killing of Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu, a university student in Sokoto state, who had been accused of blaspheming Islam, and the arrest of 45-year-old Rhoda Ya’u Jatau in Nigeria’s Bauchi state in May for sharing a WhatsApp message that condemned Yakubu’s death.
“What has happened to Rhoda should never have happened,” Kaigama told Crux.
“Freeing her from incarceration now will help greatly in moving our country to a direction where the rights and lives of its people are truly valued and this will be an important first step to restoring that hope,” he said.
Twelve states in the Muslim-dominated northern part of Nigeria have implemented some form of Islamic sharia law, under which blasphemy is a crime which can be punished by death. Critics object that such laws no only violate freedom of expression and other basic rights, but are often used to target and harass religious minorities.
At a Nov. 27 hearing at a high court in Bauchi state, Jatau’s appeal that the case be thrown out was rejected. A member of Jatau’s legal team, Solomon Mwantiri, said he was “hugely disappointed” with the court ruling.
Maria Lozano of Aid to the Church in Need, a papally-sponsored organization that supports persecuted Christians, told Crux that she hopes justice would prevail for Jatau and that the truth would come to light.
“There can be no peace without justice, and no justice without truth. We pray for that. Our thoughts and prayers also go out to Rhoda and her family, that they may find strength and support during these difficult times,” she told Crux.
Kaigama said blasphemy laws may serve the Muslims well, but in the light of international human rights, they “have a stifling effect on open dialogue and public discourse.”
He said the killing of Yakubu and Jatau’s imprisonment are linked, in that both appear to be related to “the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and of freedom of opinion and expression. In that environment, both are members of a religious minority. A failure to speak up more forcefully to defend these most fundamental freedoms is a great pity.”
Kaigama blasted Nigeria’s federal government for its “lackadaisical response to these incidences of violence and abuse of human rights.”
He said the abuse of religious freedoms in Nigeria is quite rampant, noting that even before sharia law was imposed in some northern states, Christians were already living under difficult situations.
Lozano believes that such laws should not apply to Christians, because the country’s Constitution allows for freedom of religion, including the freedom to change religion, to practice alone or in community, both in private and in public.
“Christians should not be bound or forced to follow Islamic law, but in the north, Christians often feel discriminated against by legislation that targets certain social conduct and un-Islamic behavior including, as we can see in the case of Rhoda, the blasphemy law.”
“The fact that in Nigeria a woman can be stoned to death and burned by a mob because she said something that some interpreted as offensive, and the only person now on trial in connection with this horrific case is another woman,who went public with her shock at what happened, tells us that there is a very serious problem related to religious freedom in Nigeria,” she said.
Lozano explained that blasphemy laws, which criminalize actions or expressions deemed disrespectful to Islamic religious beliefs, can be a source of social tension and riots.
“In some cases, accusations of blasphemy – or the announcement of verdicts, especially if they involve acquittal – can provoke public outrage, protests, and violence, frequently fueled by extremist religious groups and easily manipulated mobs often illiterate in religious matters,” she said.
“What Rhoda’s case tells us is that the Nigerian government is struggling to balance the fact of blasphemy laws, the constitutional right to religious freedom and free speech, and the need to maintain social order,” Lozano said.
Kaigama explained that both Christians and Muslims in Nigeria are involved in a frantic race to convert more people to their faiths and ensure territorial dominance.
“The right and duty to propagate one’s faith should, however, be balanced by the recognition of the same right and duty for those who do not share our faith convictions,” he said.
“As a country, we need to learn to accept and respect religious differences and try to propagate the values of responsible citizenship, living under one law that is valid for all. We must sincerely acknowledge the fact of the plurality of religions under one God,” he said.