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LAGOS: 'Why They Call Me Muslim Archbishop'

'Why They Call Me Muslim Archbishop'

This Day (Lagos)

AN INTERVIEW WITH NIGERIAN ARCHBISHOP JOSIAH IDOWU-FEARON

LAGOS: (6/12/2005)--Josiah Idowu-Fearon, the Anglican Archbishop of Kaduna Diocese, is a priest with a difference. In the first place, he has a doctorate degree in Islamic studies, with special interest in Christian-Muslim relations.

This is apart from an earlier masters degree in Islamic theology from Birmingham University. Then, he speaks Arabic and quotes copiously from the Holy Koran, the Muslim Holy Book. He had also undergone a course of study at Jordan University, in Amman. In his Diocese, Idowu-Fearon has since established an institute for the study of Islam, a development which does not seem to appeal to some of his flock.

In fact, some of his members who are opposed to what they describe as "Islamisation of Christianity" refer to him as a "Muslim Archbishop". Born on January 17, 1946 in Lokoja, Kogi State, Idowu-Fearon had actually set out to be a soldier and he attended the military school in Zaria but he was later given a "sympathetic discharge" when the urge to become a priest began to burn fiercely in him.

So, he abandoned the military career for Emmanuel College for his ordination programme and by 1971 he was made a deacon and later ordained at the St. Michael's Cathedral in Kaduna. In 1976, he left Nigeria to read Theology at the University of Durham, in the north-east of England from where, according to him, he developed interest in Islamic history. In an encounter with Agaju Madugba in Kaduna, Idowu-Fearon spoke on the Church and politics in the country.

What was it like growing up in Lokoja in those days?

Lokoja has always been the melting pot. It is like Kaduna. The only difference is large number of Hausa and Fulani speaking people here and southern Kaduna. I grew up with Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa people. We grew up as real Nigerians, speaking Nupe, Igbira, Koto, a bit of Igala, a bit of Yoruba, Ibo, Hausa and of course I speak Basange, Kakanda and Ganagana, these are variant dialects of the Nupe language. I also used to speak a little bit of Gwari, not Gbaggyi. I grew up as a real Nigerian in Lokoja and I have carried that along with me. The military school sort of added zest to that because when I got there, I felt at home with the Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba.

What informed your decision to go into priesthood?

I became a Christian in my second year at the military school, though I grew up in a Christian home. My father was a priest. In my second year, I felt the call to help the ones we used to call the other ranks, the non-commissioned officers who were looking after us at the military school. What actually lured me was the sort of life soldiers were living. As a Christian, I felt it was not proper, wife-beating, children not properly looked after, I felt for them. So, I felt that God was calling me to be a pastor. That was how I got into the ministry.

And, how has it been so far?

Fantastic. I remember being taken to the late General Hassan Katsina by my commandant who thought I was mad when I said I was going to leave the Army. The late Katsina was not happy with me at all. He felt I was going to shorten the northern quota because we were to be drafted to the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA). It was during the Civil War and there were only 13 of us left at the military school. So, we had almost a direct entry to the NDA. He questioned and queried me and I remember saying to him, even if I became a General in the Army, I would not be happy. This is what I believe God wants me to do. I thank God that He used Gen. Hassan Katsina. Although, it has been full of ups and downs but with a hindsight, among all my colleagues then, I think I am the only one still in active service, they have all retired as Generals in the Army. I am still a General in the Church.

What do you think is responsible for the intermittent conflicts between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria given your knowledge of both religions?

You see, the relationship between Christians and Muslims has been on and off. Let me take you back to the beginning, during the life time of Prophet Mohammed himself. When he felt called, he believed that his call was along the line of the earlier prophets, so, he invited the Jews but the Jews would not have anything to do with him. So, he turned to the Christians and that is why there was this ambivalent relationship between Islam and Christianity. There are passages in the Quran that praise Christians and their leaders. That is a reflection of the period of cordial relationship between Prophet Mohammed and the Christians then. It got to a point that, because the Christians were also questioning the calling of the Prophet of Islam, you see passages in the Quran that reflect that period, the relationship was no longer as cordial as when it started. Then it degenerated to a point where Christian leaders then refused to accept Prophet Mohammed as one of the prophets mentioned in the Bible. Then there came passages in the Quran that denounced Christian leaders and sanctioned Muslims for marrying their daughters to Christians and then made Christians to pay a kind of tax in a humiliating posture. What you have in the Quran are two stages of degeneration in the relationship between Christians and Muslims. So, Christians who want to fire misunderstanding between Christians and Muslims, they go to the later stage where the relationship broke down. But people like myself who want to encourage more cordial relationship and peaceful co-existence, go back to the beginning of the relationship between Christians and Muslims as it is in the Quran. So, it depends on your mission. In the Quran, we have a clear statement, "there is no compulsion in religion; to you, your religion, to me, my religion". So, live and let live. But, unfortunately, there are people who do not understand the history or sociological development of these two religions and they begin to harp on the negative sides, it doesn't help us. This country belongs to Christians and Muslims, our leaders will always emerge from Christians and Muslims and because of that, there is no way anybody can be governor, president or senator in this country without votes from both sides. It is actually in the interest of politicians who want to govern us, to see that Christians and Muslims are brought together and encouraged to live by their religious principles and encourage peaceful co-existence and respect for the other person's religion. If our politicians don't do that, nobody will vote for them. If all Muslims decide to vote for a Muslim candidate, he cannot win, and if a Christian candidate succeeds in convincing only Christians to vote for him, he can never win. That is why I believe Governor Ahmed Mohammed Makarfi is one of the few leaders who understand that. You have seen how he tries to encourage Christians and Muslims to live together and to respect the other persons religion because he knows it is in his own interest as a politician to get people of different faiths to work together and live in peace.

Sometime ago you established an institute in your Diocese for the study of Islam. Are your people comfortable with that?

No, unfortunately some of them are not but they are only about two percent in the whole Diocese. But I am concerned because even if it is O.1 per cent, they can go and do something stupid and disorganise the entire state. I hope that the few who are yet to imbibe the spirit of wanting to know the other person's religion, will eventually see the sense. I say that because most of the problems we have in Kaduna state can be traced to ignorance.

Recently, you made certain comments which the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) denounced and accused you of going out of your way to support the implementation of Sharia in Zamfara State. What is your comment?

Let me correct two mistakes in your question. One, which CAN? Saidu Dogo does not represent CAN. There is nothing in CAN constitution that supports "CAN 19 Northern States," there is nothing like that. It is an illegal body. Two, Kaduna CAN Secretary was with me when we went to see the Governor of Zamfara State, Alhaji Sani Yerima, so whatever Dogo said could not have been the position of CAN. This is what happened. We have an association called Bridge Builders Association of Nigeria and our job is to build bridges between religious and tribal communities in the different zones of the country and encourage peaceful co-existence between Christians and Muslims. I had heard and read a lot about Yerima, especially in the area of development.

I am currently looking at what influence politics and religion have on development. I am a research fellow at the ABU in that area. The Zamfara Governor invited us to his lodge here in Kaduna and we met him.

After the introductions, I addressed the governor and said, you are a very committed Muslim and of course, a committed Muslim is encouraged to live by Sharia. Sharia means the path. It has the same root as Sharia in Arabic. So, telling a Muslim that there should not be Sharia is as good as telling him, there is no path. So, I praised him for being a committed Muslim.

The Kaduna CAN secretary was there, the Bishop of Gusau was there. I told the governor that you are a committed Muslim but not a governor for Muslims alone. You are a governor to Christians and Muslims in the state and the Quran says there is no compulsion in religion and that all people are equal before God, like the teeth of the comb.

So, we expect you to maintain justice, equity and fairness which are the things Sharia stands for. Sharia, is for Muslims but we (Christians) don't also endorse consumption of alcohol and promotion of prostitution. It is also in the Bible. I also said Your Excellency, we know the principles that govern Sharia and we expect you to apply these principles.

May 29 is Democracy Day. Do we have any cause to celebrate?

I would say yes but there are areas that need improvement. There are three questions by which you can measure development and democracy, according to the late Professor Okigbo. Is there food on table for people to eat, for you to have food, there must be jobs. Is there security? If you cast your mind back to 1998, there was a lot of insecurity in the country but there is some today, we are not there yet but we still have a lot to be done.

From what we are seeing, I would award some pass mark and there are failures in certain areas both at the national and state levels. For those of us in Kaduna State, for security and freedom, we have come a long way and I would give a pass mark to Makarfi. In terms of jobs, you can see motorcycles everywhere, at least some of these young people are being gainfully employed. In terms of health, things are happening here, there are improvements in the hospitals and road, water supply is there.

What areas do you think government should put more emphasis, at the national level?

There is this hydra-headed corruption. I believe the President means well but, unfortunately, a lot of people in government are not with him in this area of fighting corruption. They are not with him because corruption did not begin with this government. When you have become so used to a process, it becomes difficult to stop it. So, in the area of corruption, this government has a along way to go but my joy is that we have God.

I would call on Nigerians, Christians and Muslims, men and women who have integrity to try and support this campaign against corruption. We will suffer, all of us, myself inclusive because we are all beneficiaries of this corruption, all of us. Everybody in this nation is a beneficiary of corruption the reason is this, we invite our politicians, our businessmen, those we know don't do honest business, they inflate contracts. They take proceeds from this inflation, come to our churches and mosques with big money. We take this money. Our politicians come and take part in our launchings, we take this money.

Now, government is saying no more easy money. So, churches, mosques, philanthropic organisations are suffering. We must all now begin to tighten our belts and manage honest money. It is painful but we should be able to tackle it. then, another area, there can never be equality in any democratic setting where you have capitalism, but there should be equity. What we have should be given according to the needs of the people. Let us take the Niger Delta region as an example.

I have been there and I feel ashamed. There is no electricity there. Your generator is your regular source of electricity, that is unfair. It is not fair and I believe government should do something about that. We know how much the governors from these oil producing states get. The question we should ask is how is the money spent. We should be able to hold our governors accountable to us because we elected them. Government needs to work in the area of equity.

Is it not possible that our religious clerics are not doing enough because these people involved in corruption are Muslims and Christians who worship in Mosques and Churches?

Our role is not only to preach but to live practically what we teach and preach. I believe as religious leaders, we should stop inviting our followers to donate beyond what they can honestly donate. That is why I said the church, the mosque and religious leaders will suffer but if suffering will sanitise the system and reduce the spate of corruption, I would go for it.

Do you subscribe to the proposals of a single six year tenure for the president and ban on certain category of leaders in the past?

I have a simple approach to this. If you make a law in order to get at a particular individual, it is wrong. However, if it is a law that is in the interest of the generality of the people, then it is of God. I would say that we need to be very careful, we need to be extremely careful not to make a law to get at a particular person or persons because we live in a changing world, therefore, we must look far ahead before we make laws.

I support the proposal for a single term. Five or six years is a period long enough for an individual to perform. If he or she performs well, opportunities should be given to others. We are a nation of over 100 million people. When you have one good individual, there are others who can surpass that person. In the light of that, I support a single term tenure. Nigeria

Have the new generation Churches encroached into the Anglican Church, poaching some of your members?

Well, the new generation churches have given a lot of challenges to the mission based churches like the Anglican church for example, Methodist, Roman Catholic etc. One of the challenges is the contextualisation or to make Christ relevant to the contemporary times we have found ourselves.

As a leader in the Anglican communion, I thank God for that challenge because we no longer rest on our oars. We are all the time thinking of how to make Christ relevant to the various communities we serve. The new generation thing has made us to sit up. But one thing about the new generation churches is that members have so much respect for their pastors. It appeals to my heart because we lack some of that in the mission-based churches.

END

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