Cardinal John Onaiyekan Encourages Dialogue and Peace

At the annual Assisi conference, Nigerian cardinal discusses current struggles among peoples and youth.

Cardinal John Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria, speaks during an interview in Rome on June 18, 2013.
Cardinal John Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria, speaks during an interview in Rome on June 18, 2013. (photo: Lauren Cater/CNA)

Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria, spoke with the Register in Bologna, Italy, during a break at the 32nd meeting in Assisi, Oct. 14-16. The annual meeting was started by Pope St. John Paul II in 1986 and continued by the Community of Sant’Egidio, where representatives of different cultures, faiths and religions joined together to build “bridges of peace.”

In this interview, the archbishop of Abuja reflects on the importance of keeping alive the Polish saint’s legacy through this encounter and discusses realities for his country and people, including war, fundamentalism and emigration. He also stressed that most young Nigerians want to be rooted to faith. In addition, although he is not participating in the youth synod, he weighed in on important synod concerns.


Your Eminence, you are not new to these annual meetings of the Community of Sant'Egidio intending to perpetuate the “spirit of Assisi.” How is the “spirit of Assisi” today?

I see the spirit of Assisi as a gift, a grace that Our Lord has given to the world. We live in such a perplexing world, with so many wars! But there are also many groups that talk about peace, whose purpose is to follow this “spirit of Assisi,” and this is encouraging!

Let’s consider the guests who came to Bologna to take part in this “Bridges of Peace” encounter; many of them have been coming for many years, and this impresses me! And not just Catholics, but also Muslims, Buddhists. ... They leave for a few days all their commitments to participate in this meeting, year after year; we always find ourselves here again together every time. Some might think that it is wasting time, but for me, it is a sign of hope, knowing how to come to these meetings and find peace-seekers. The “spirit of Assisi” has given life to a community of seekers of peace, which includes everyone: Christians, Muslims, rich people and poor people ...


You speak of hope even if, from 1986 onwards, religious fundamentalism has surged. Looking at what these meetings promote, the world, one could observe, seems to be going at times in the opposite direction.

This is the experience that we are facing in Nigeria: There exist the “fanatic” Muslims — to use a bad word — just as there are also fanatic Christians; they have terrible ideas, which I absolutely do not agree with. But we always say: This is the price to pay for religious freedom, to let everyone speak. But then it’s up to us to work toward necessary moderation, having a nonpartial vision of what religion is, and to do our work.


How would you describe the danger of radical religious fundamentalism in Nigeria?

It’s clear to me now. Religious fundamentalism flourishes when people live in a situation of general social and economic hardship, where the government does not do what it needs to do. ... Where there is no social justice, it is much easier for a pastor or imam to tell young people: “Look, the situation you are in is this way because the religion you profess is not a serious religion. … You can convert to true Islam, the serious one,” which is obviously “their” Islam. And there are Christians among the endless sects of them in Nigeria who have problematic ideas. … As archbishop of Abuja, I can only say that this is not Christianity! Then I ask all my Muslim friends to say clearly that the discourses of Boko Haram are not the voice of true Islam! We try to move forward, launching concrete messages for a peaceful country, based on justice, even exhorting the government to do what is its duty.


Your Eminence, during the Synod of Bishops on young people at the Vatican, much discussion has been dedicated to young people, especially in the West, who have turned their backs on the faith or are just completely indifferent to religion. In Nigeria, in Africa, would you say this is the relevant phenomenon, or is there another?

No. The African young people have a vibrant faith. Young people are very much interested or drawn to the faith. The question is how: Where do they go to worship or why do they worship? ... What kind of spiritual messages are attracting them? … That is the issue.

I imagine that at times when young Nigerians arrive here in Europe, they are surprised that people here are not asking the same questions. Then if they do not feel welcome in their local parish, then they may be brought into these small groups formed by Pentecostal pastors, who come from Nigeria to start a small church. I must add: When people have difficulties for which there are not solutions available … someone ends up in the hospital unexplainably, someone studies very hard and something still does not work out as it should have, other challenges and disappointments … you either despair or maybe you turn to religion.

Sometimes religion can really help them, but sometimes religion, if not used or presented correctly, can also mislead them. A problem is how we welcome and accommodate the youth in our Church structures, but the faith is very vibrant.


Often, the West’s mentality and culture has had an impact internationally on other continents, and not always for the better, promoting secular values not coherent with living the Gospel. How can African youth maintain their identity?

We should not focus on the impact of the West on Africa. Nigerians always remain Nigerians. They have their own contributions globally, too.

For instance, young Nigerians have produced excellent music, and they become well-known, appreciated and wealthy worldwide singing Nigerian music. There is a globalized youth. We are globalized. Because of this globalized culture of the youth, they feel there is no reason why young people should not be able to enjoy the freedom and good things that Europe and America are enjoying. Many, therefore, leave.


How can the synod bear concrete results once it has ended?

It is the duty of every local Church after the synod to make sure that everything that happens is brought back home. I have been to synods, and there is a spirit, and it is not about who is speaking. Everyone is heard. ... We all go back home, and each bishop will decide what to do, what priority to make. 

Register correspondent Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.