Omoniyi Salaudeen and Olakunle Olafioye
When it comes to religion: whether Christianity, Islam or traditional practice, Nigeria is rated high in the world. But following the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus in the country, this rating seems now to have a question mark. As part of precautions against the spread of the disease in the country, state governments across the country have placed a ban on all forms of gathering of people beyond 50 and 20 in some cases. But the directive, which took effect from last Friday witnessed different levels of compliance, from partial obedience to flagrant disobedience of the order by most religious centres.
More worrisome is the brazen manner in which some religious leaders and organizations flouted the directive. Not a few analysts expressed disappointment at the attitude of religious leaders who observed the directive in breach.
A rights activist and social crusader, Mrs Margaret Ogbeide of Citizens’ Rights Initiative (CRI), said that there are lessons derivable from the failure of religious leaders to comply with the directive, which according to her, was taken in the best interest of the people of the country.
One of such lessons, according to Ogbeide, is the question on the sincerity of their calling and the faith they profess.
“As a Christian, my Bible teaches me that disobedience to civil authorities is a sin against God because we are made to believe that no government comes to be without God’s consent, not even the worst of them. So, it will be very difficult for anybody who professes to be a church leader to regain my respect after disobeying the directive issued by the government as a way of containing the spread of this deadly virus,” she stated.
Findings by Sunday Sun showed that while some religious leaders openly disobeyed the directive by conducting services with more than the required number of people, some disingenuously devised means to circumvent the directive.
There were instances where churches allowed their members to gather within the church premises, but allowed only the required number of worshippers into their auditoriums at a time.
This strategy, according to Dr Olalekan Shogbola, Pastor-in-charge of Divine Grace Evangelical Mission, Lagos, failed to meet the motive behind government’s decision to ban such gatherings.
“Assembling scores of people outside the church building and allowing them to come in batches does not guarantee the safety of the members against contracting Coronavirus. The people, before coming in must interact with one another, which could be an avenue for the virus to spread. And except the church auditorium was fumigated immediately after one batch left the church before the next set of worshippers would come in, there is the likelihood of the new set contracting the virus from those who came in earlier. If there was an infected person among them, it’s also high because the new set would sit on the same chairs used by the first set of worshippers. So, it doesn’t make any sense at all,” he argued.
The lesson derivable from such arrangement, Shogbola pointed out, might be far from being altruistic.
“There are major lessons to be learnt from this outbreak and the response of various governments and institutions to it. But on the religious front, the flagrant disobedience of most religious groups to government’s directive on religious gathering underscores the fact that the majority of them only have one major objective, which is their selfish interest.
“Personally, I never believed there could ever be a time when we would be compelled by circumstances such as this to lock up the doors of religious houses in Nigeria. But suddenly, we have found ourselves in such situation and government responded well with this directive, which unfortunately many religious leaders considered too difficult to obey.
“The Bible teaches us to obey constituted authorities, but some pastors are already coming up with ways to circumvent this, perhaps because of financial losses that they are likely to suffer. When a church is shut, there is no way offerings can come in for them. My conclusion is that any religious leader who violates this directive should be arrested because he is most likely to be in the ministry for pecuniary gains and nothing else,” he said.
On the part of members who sheepishly obey their leaders’ instruction to disobey government’s directive, Sogbola said: “One needs to query their understanding of the teachings of the Bible and their faith in God. The Bible teaches us that God is omnipresent, which means He is everywhere. So, at a time like this, we must cling to this belief. Of course, as Christians, we are admonished not to neglect the assembly of ourselves, but we must know that we are in peculiar situation, which might not last more than few weeks if we do the needful after which we will return to our various worship centres. But some Christians, who do not believe that they have equal level of grace with their leaders, will insist on going for service before their prayers are answered. This show how parochial they are.”
But one of the first religious organizations to suspend congregational programmes in Nigeria is the Ansaru Deen Society of Nigeria.
The national missioner of the society, Sheik Abduraman Ahmad noted that there was precedence set by the Prophet of Islam for every Muslim.
According to him, “we must not be naïve and we must not play God. We must be conscious of the fact that the Prophet of Islam experienced something like this and had ordered people to stay at home.
“In Islam, for instance, when there is rain and there is flood and there is mud or there is fear or insecurity or there is extreme cold, the caller to prayers will ask people to pray in their homes. So, we have precedence for this; it is not something difficult. So, religious organizations and leaders must not consider the pecuniary benefits that they will derive from people congregating and endanger their health. That will be criminal.
“We have read about patient number 31 in South Korea who went to church twice and succeeded in infecting hundreds of others. We must keep faith at this time and we cannot be more religious than the prophet of Islam. The cities of Mecca and Medina have been on virtually lock down for weeks now because they are proactive and they are preemptive. That is all we must do because we must learn from Italy and we must take precautions. If we are asked to stay at home we must stay at home because that is the only way the virus can be contained.”
There are yet more positive lessons to be learnt from this development. For Prof. Ishaq Akintola, director, Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), the outbreak of the deadly virus offers a hidden lesson to Nigerians.
This, according to him, is the opportunity for Nigerians to sink their differences and come together as a nation to resolve the numerous challenges bedevilling the country.
His words: “Nigerians should not lose sight of the hidden message in this global tragedy. The most important message is that despite belonging to different faiths, races, colour etc, the whole of mankind is woven together in fate. We should, therefore, seek to sink our differences. We should put all human heads under the same thinking cap and eliminate stigma, racism and all forms of discrimination. Our watchword should be humanity first.
“Nigerians should not allow this opportunity to slip by without taking a giant leap across the yawning abyss. Nigerians are too divided over primordial, infinitesimal and inconsequential things. It is either over creed, ethnicity or politics. Yet there are still divisions within every issue at stake.
“Although Muslims and Christians tear at each other’s throats in this country, Muslims still have differences within Islamdom and ditto for Christians. Again, while the Igbo rave at Hausa-Fulani, both groups still nurse deep-seated intra-ethnic grievances. The Egba/Ijebu and Modakeke/Ife rivalry is well known among the Yoruba. Inter-party bitterness in Nigeria may be condemnable, but the intra-party intolerance is most despicable.
“Yet right now a common enemy in the name of Coronavirus is on the prowl. America’s nuclear bomb and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) are useless against it. No alliance is being contemplated by the West to fight the common foe. This makes mockery of man’s inhumanity to man. We marshalled the most dangerous weapons against fellow homo sapiens, but failed to prepare to defend humanity against Coronavirus.
“MURIC charges leaders of different religions and ethnic groups in Nigeria to create new bridges at this particular period. Let us make new compromises towards resolving seeming intractable problems. Let us be persuaded by the phenomenon of Covid-19, which knows no colour, no race, no political party or ethnicity. It does not discriminate between a Muslim, a Christian or the adherents of any other religion. This is the time for all of us to sink our differences. What matters is our dear country, Nigeria. What matters is humanity.”