Once more I am writing about religious dialogue. Despite dominating violence discourse I want to share a positive example, this time about Nigeria.
Published on Anglican News.
Saint Mark’s Anglican primary school in Kawo Kaduna, Nigeria, is the only church school in the diocese where prayers and Christian religious subjects are not compulsory for Muslims.
Instead of closing the only church and the attached school when Christians fled the region, the diocesan bishop, newly appointed Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, the Most Revd Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon, has insisted on a more welcoming approach towards Muslim students.
Kaduna city is strictly divided between practitioners of two main religions. The southern part is mainly inhabited by Christians, while northern Kaduna is mainly Muslim. The business centre is a place where both groups meet and work side by side, every day returning home to their respective parts of the city.
Saint Mark’s Anglican primary school is the only church school left in Kawo North Kaduna. It is located close to a military barrack and a church that has been burned down in violent clashes and rebuilt three times.
Several episodes of sectarian violence with victims from both religious groups forced Christians to flee Muslim-dominated North Kaduna. Many parents withdrew their children from Saint Mark’s primary school and the number of pupils dropped from 240 to 50 between 2011 and 2013.
“When Christians left, the classrooms became empty, few tuition fees were paid and it was difficult to provide teacher salaries,” says Martin Odidi, education secretary for the Diocese of Kaduna, The Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), currently in UK participating in a seven week Commonwealth Professional Fellowship scheme, hosted by the Anglican Alliance.
After a suicide bomb attack in the Christian populated South, the headmistress of Saint Mark’s resigned and as a rare exception after a long debate a young Muslim teacher was appointed acting headmaster for a year.
Despite several suggestions from some clergy members, Bishop Idowu-Fearon made the decision not to close the Kawo church and school. Currently there are 69 pupils, 80 per cent of whom are Muslims.
There are few Muslims in other Kaduna city church schools and their parents are made to sign an agreement or informed that their children are obliged to follow Christian prayer and Christian religious subjects. They are not allowed to perform Islamic worship nor wear any religious clothing on the school premises.
“In the central part of Kaduna city all of our church schools have experienced a drastic drop in numbers of children because of insecurity. I suggested the schools to allow Muslim students to wear the hijab [veil not covering the face] and say their prayers, if they wish. In this way the number of children would increase,” says Odidi.
Muslim parents are sending their children to the Anglican school, favouring its standard of education and study curriculum rather than the state schools.
Saint Mark’s school is the only one ready to ‘compromise’. “Administration in other Anglican schools is convinced if you allow Muslims to pray, they will ask for Islamic subjects to be taught at school, if we allow that, they will ask for a place to worship, then build a Mosque and then they will try to convert Christians…,” continues the education secretary. Still, this is not what happened at Saint Mark’s.
There is an almost equal number of Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. The northern part of the country is mostly Muslim, while in the centre there is a mixed presence of both and the southern parts are mostly Christian. The relationships between the two main religious groups are historically intertwined and members of the same family could still belong to different religious groups.
“My grandfather was animist and had two wives. For this reason he could not join the mission church. He accepted Islam because it allows four wives. My father became a Christian when he went to a Catholic mission school. You got a lot of benefits if you were Christian during the period of British missionaries. My brother is Muslim today and is married to a Muslim woman,” explains Odidi.
While children at Saint Mark’s Anglican primary school play together without any difficulties, relationships among adults are more complicated, recounts the Anglican education secretary: “People meet each other, talk, go to the market… We separate, when we go home to our communities. When the crisis comes, we lose trust and start fighting each other as if we were strangers.”
In the current situation where extremist groups in northern Nigeria produce distrust and fear, Odidi would like church schools to promote peaceful coexistence and allow Muslims to practice Islam if they wish so and learn Islamic religious studies.
“The North is facing reduction of Christian population; we are surrounded by Muslim community. It will encourage more Muslims to come to our church schools and we will have the fees to develop the schools and pay salaries,” he concludes.