ABUJA, Nigeria — Whenever the subject of Christian/Muslim relations in Nigeria arises, the inevitable tendency is for the conversation to begin and end with the militant Islamic terrorist movement Boko Haram.
Sometimes lost in the shuffle is that for every story of religiously driven violence, however, Nigeria also features remarkable examples of Christian/Muslim friendship, including cases in which members of the two communities have come to one another’s aid in the face of a Boko Haram assault.
Perhaps the principal long-term worry that many Nigerians on both sides of the divide seem to have today is that long after Boko Haram is gone, those friendships may still be frayed by its memory.
According to the Rev. Peter Umoren, a Catholic pastor in the north central city of Jos that’s been hard-hit by Boko Haram violence, his home was once famous for interreligious coexistence. Today, he said, all that is gone, as Christians and Muslims have retreated into separate zones.
He says “only God’s grace” could put things back together.
“We all want peace, but it’s not coming the way we want it,” he said.
Umoren has lived in the northern city of Jos for the past 48 years. He remembers a time when Muslims would invite Christians for their celebrations and vice-versa.
“When you lived in the same area, you cooked food and put it in different bowls on a tray and distributed it around the neighborhood, Christians and Muslims alike,” he said.
Today, there are places in his own city he wouldn’t go to, because he knows they’re Muslim enclaves.
“I know almost all the nooks and corners in Jos, and yet there are parts of the city I can’t drive in,” he said. “If you go to a Muslim enclave, you may not be safe.”
Umoren’s church, St. Finbar’s, was bombed in March 2012, killing 14 people. Today, security forces shut down the street on Sundays where it and three other Christian churches are located to prevent similar attacks.
“It’s tragic that the two communities have separated,” he lamented. “That communal living is no longer there. This Jos I grew up with doesn’t exist anymore …”
Musa Abdullahi, a Muslim sociologist at the University of Maiduguri in northern Nigeria, has a different experience. He believes that despite initial tensions in everyday interactions between Christians and Muslims, gradually people are realizing that Boko Haram is everyone’s problem.
“It’s made [Christian/Muslim relations] more solid,” he said. As a Muslim, he sees no relation between his religion and Boko Haram, and argues that Muslims are as much victims as Christians.
He also disputes that Boko Haram leaders are especially motivated by religious considerations, citing a recent case of a YouTube video of a captured leader from the group who couldn’t even recite a verse from the Koran.
In a telling footnote to the story, Musa said he received a link to the video from a fellow academic who’s also a Christian and his best friend.
Other stories of Muslim/Christian solidarity here are easy to find.
In 2013, a photograph that showed some 20 Muslims protecting a Catholic church from a possible terrorist attack during a Sunday Mass in Egypt went viral in social media. So far no such picture has come out from Nigeria, but it easily could.
According to Abdullahi, in Maiduguri on Sundays “you can see Muslims on their way to protect Christian [churches].” On Fridays, he said, Christians return the favor guarding the mosques.
His colleague, Prof. Suleiman B. Mohammed of the University of Abuja, says that relationships across Nigeria’s religious divide generally are getting stronger.
However, he recognizes that “the response can’t be said to be uniform.” In Lagos, he argues, there are no religious divisions, nor in the country’s Southwest. Yet in the Southeast, where Boko Haram hasn’t been very influential, Christians “are more critical, keep a distance, are wary.”
Catholic Bishop Matthew Kukah, of the diocese of Sokoto, also believes not all is lost when it comes to Christian-Muslim relations.
As an example, he says that when he needed $200,000 to build a youth center in his parish when he was serving as a priest in Kaduna, a Muslim-dominated northern city, $180,000 of the money came from Muslims.
In fact, Kukah said, his Muslims friends complain when he’s referred to as a “Catholic bishop” because they see him as their bishop, too.
At a grassroots level, Christians seem to understand that Muslims suffer, too, at the hands of Boko Haram.
At a camp for internally displaced people called New Kuchingoro, located on the outskirts of Abuja, the Christian-Muslim relationship is surprisingly strong.
Some 950 people live in makeshift tents built using sugar canes to hold them up and grain bags as walls. All of the residents relocated to the camp after Boko Haram forced them to flee their villages in the northern state of Borno.
Most of the camp’s population is Christian, yet there also are 31 Muslims in the group, and by all accounts they’re fully accepted.
“If these Muslims ran away, too, it means they weren’t the bad guys,” said Philemon Emmanuel, the camp’s informal leader. “The fact that they ran means they’re victims too.”
Kukah said that despite it all, his personal experience gives him hope.
“I walk around [in my clerical dress, identifying him as a Catholic bishop],” he said, “and the kind of reception I get at the airports, everywhere, tells me that this is a heck of a country.”