When Boko Haram stormed into the town of Shaffa in Nigeria’s Borno State some weeks ago, members of the Bura Bible translation team joined thousands of others fleeing for their lives. But Dalta Balami, the translation committee secretary, didn’t make it. He was killed, along with dozens of others, as the militants rampaged through the largely Christian town. They burnt down churches, homes and businesses, and completely destroyed the Bura Bible translation office.*
Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, who takes a keen interest in Bible translation and chairs the Bible Society of Nigeria’s translation committee, was deeply saddened by the news. In an interview with United Bible Societies, which he serves as a member of its Global Council, he spoke about how Boko Haram’s aggression is threatening to stir up deep divisions in a country that has enjoyed relative peace despite its ‘unique mixture of Christians and Muslims.’
“Our population is roughly 50% Christian and 50% Muslim,” he explained. “As Africa’s most populous nation, we have substantial numbers of both religions – around 80 million of each.
“We’ve always prided ourselves that Nigerian Christians and Muslims have learned to live together in relative peace. Not without occasional clashes, but in general, the average Nigerian Muslim and the average Nigerian Christian have no problem relating to each other. However, Boko Haram’s actions are threatening that.”
Deeply religious country
The cardinal acknowledged the importance of taking military action to ‘disarm the aggressor’, adding that ‘you cannot turn the other cheek and allow evil to thrive’. But he also believes that in a deeply religious country like Nigeria (a recent poll shows it to be the second most religious country in the world), a greater depth of interfaith understanding is vital for building peace.
“In Nigeria, as a Christian you cannot seriously promote the Bible and ignore the fact that you are living side by side with 80 million people who see the Quran as the sacred Word of God. And the same is true the other way. It’s something we need to pay more attention to.
“We need more openness and dialogue. We can continue to hold dearly to the sources of our own faith and spiritual orientation while leaving room that others, with whom we live every day, have their own.
If we get acquainted with each other’s sacred writings, we will discover common ground, which can then form the basis for collaboration, for living together in peace. If we’d had this depth of understanding, there would have been no room for Boko Haram.
“Because when we get to know more about each other, we discover that while we have different beliefs, it doesn’t mean that we’re against each other. In fact, we share many points of reference. We discover, for instance, that many biblical characters appear in the Quran. Jesus and Mary, in particular, are respected by both religions and Mary is actually mentioned more times in the Quran than in the New Testament! Many Catholics are impressed by the respect which Muslims have for Mary, the mother of Jesus.
“In addition, we discover that we aspire to the same basic tenets of morality, kindness and honesty. It’s good for Christians and Muslims alike to recognise that the Spirit of the Lord blows wherever he wills.
In the increasingly religiously charged environment in Nigeria, Cardinal John emphasised the importance of Christian witness.
“Our daily lives should reflect what we believe. In that way, we make the Bible available to those we live among. That doesn’t mean they’ll change and become Christians but they’ll at least be conversant with what we believe.
“Also, as it says in 1 Peter 3:15, ‘Be ready at all times to answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have in you.’ This means we need to know our Bible well.”
Cardinal John paid tribute to the bravery of Nigerian Christians who have sacrificed everything for what they believe in.
When push comes to shove, many Christians are showing who they are and standing up for their faith. Boko Haram is capturing villages and asking everyone to become Muslims. Christians are refusing, choosing to lose their homes, farms and businesses – and even their lives – rather than abandon their faith.
* Despite Boko Haram’s attack on the translation centre, the very first Bible in Bura – a language spoken by 250,000 people in north-eastern Nigeria – will be launched in December.