At a conference of interfaith leaders in Milan, Cardinal John O. Onaiyekan suggested that Islamist violence in his country of Nigeria, as well as in Syria, has been fueled by external influences.
“Outside funding for Islam in Nigeria is nothing new,” the archbishop of Abuja remarked June 17 at the tenth annual meeting of the Oasis International Foundation.
The conference brought together top Muslim and Catholic figures to discuss the tightrope between secularism and ideology so often walked in the Middle East.
In Nigeria, Christians and Muslims largely coexisted peacefully until a few years ago. The militant Islamist group Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is sinful,” seeks to impose Shariah law throughout Nigeria, and was founded in 2002.
The groups has been responsible for the death of some 2,800 people since 2009, Human Rights Watch reported.
According to Cardinal Onaiyekan, Boko Haram was not initially a terrorist group. He said that in its beginning, the group refused to work with non-Muslims, but that it never resorted to violence.
“The problem is what kind of input are they getting with their outside links, and when they are linked to outside groups that have ideas that are leading to the problems that we have.”
In May, Nigeria's spy agency reported finding an armory belonging to Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group. Three Lebanese nationals were arrested at the arms depot in Kano, located in north-central Nigeria.
“They have different names in different places,” the cardinal said. “In the Middle East they call them al-Qaeda, in Somalia they're called al-Shabaab, in Pakistan they’re called Taliban, and in Nigeria we call them Boko Haram.”
“Not even five percent of Nigerian Muslims agree with Boko Haram, and they’re worried because they’re killing Muslims, too, and giving Islam a bad name,” said Cardinal Onaiyekan.
The prelate also discussed the Syrian civil war, and said he hopes the violence there does not spread to his homeland.
The war in Syria has dragged on for 27 months, and claimed the lives of at least 93,000 people. It began in April, 2011 when the Syrian army began to fire on protestors of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president and leader of the country's Ba'ath Party.
Russia and Iran have been supportive of the Syrian regime, while western nations have favored the rebel groups. The rebels are made up of a number of facets, including both secularists and Islamists such as al-Nusra Front.
The U.S., France, and U.K. have all been giving the rebels non-lethal support since 2012. And on June 14, President Obama said he was prepared to give direct military aid to the opposition, having determined that the regime used chemical weapons on its own people.
“Who is supporting the so-called opposition in Syria,” said Cardinal Onaiyekan. “Is it not the West?”
He claimed to CNA that the Syrian opposition is supported by “some people who don't understand what is happening.”
“America is telling us that they will send more weapons to a group of people who are against their government,” the cardinal said.
Obama has said that assistance will be given to the Syrian National Coalition, which is not aligned with the Islamist al-Nusra Front.
“This is a crazy world, they probably have their reasons,” said Cardinal Onaiyekan. “They know what they want, but it is definitely not the good of the Syrian people.”
Although there are sectarian tensions in Syria, among different Muslim groups and directed against Christians, the cardinal said that “much of the conflicts that are described as religious are not so.”
This week's G8 – Group of Eight Industrialized Nations – talks, held in Northern Ireland, have called for Syrian peace talks to be held in Switzerland “as soon as possible.”
Much concern remains that the Syrian war will spread across the Middle East. At least 1.5 million refugees have fled to nearby countries and least ten percent of Jordan's population is now made up of the Syrian displaced.
Other speakers at the Oasis conference included Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan and the network’s founder; Sami M. Angawi, president of al-Makkiyah al-Madaniyah Institution in Saudi Arabia; La Sorbonne professor Rémi Brague; and Jawad al-Khoei, a Shia leader from Iraq.
Angawi told CNA that religion and authority should not mix, and that religion “should not be imposed. Religion is like love, one cannot have it if one does not want it.”
Cardinal Onaiyekan noted that “those who do not respect religion, say it is not a force for good.”
He said he would like to see the world “enjoy the positives fruits of different religions, admit that God is bigger than any of us, and for Christians to be free to practice their faith.”
“Muslims should also be free to practice their faith, remembering that they shouldn’t do anything to Christians that they wouldn’t want Christians to do to them.”
“We must change the way people look at their religion,” he said. “We need to open up to others, admit that there are other people. Not only tolerating them, but also respecting them, because I don’t want anyone to (merely) tolerate me.”