On June 12-13, more than 50 important religious leaders from the Nigerian Christian and Muslim communities came together in Abuja for the National Conference on the Protection of Holy Sites. Organized by our Nigeria team and funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the conference was the culmination of our project Building Consensus on the Protection of Holy Sites in Northern Nigeria.
The project is a response to violent actions targeting holy sites in Northern Nigeria. It created a space for dialogue among religious leaders in the country, who discussed shared strategies to protect places of worship and ways to promote interreligious tolerance and respect.
The final conference gave a national platform to the participants in previous regional meetings, who came together to recognize the Universal Code of Conduct on Holy Sites and establish a national consensus.
Our Global Advisor on Religious Engagement, Sharon Rosen, also participated in the conference and brought a global perspective to the application of the Code of Conduct. She shared success stories from our work with communities in Jerusalem, Bosnia, Tunisia, and Sri Lanka. On the first day of the conference, these examples set the foundation for a discussion concerning concrete actions religious leaders can take in Nigeria.
The participants commented on the importance of engaging with youth and the need to teach respect and interreligious understanding in schools, which are often segregated by faith. They also spoke on the need for legislation that criminalizes the destruction of holy sites and discussed how to better engage with politicians. The general consensus was for strengthening interfaith cooperation and teaching others to look beyond religion and respect the sacred sites of all religions.
Our project found that there is a need for increased media attention around the many religious leaders promoting understanding and tolerance, not just those inciting violence. In light of this, we concluded the first day of the conference with a press briefing for journalists from national print and TV news outlets.
On the second day, prominent leaders took to the stage. Nuruddeen Lemu, Director of Research and Training at the Da’wah Institute of Nigeria, presented the results of previous discussions. Cardinal John Onaiyekan publicly endorsed our initiative and spoke about the need to raise children who see each other as brothers and sisters, not Muslims or Christians. A representative of the Sultan of Sokoto highlighted the importance of engaging with youth, emphasizing that a majority of Boko Haram recruits are between the age of 13 and 18. He also explained how, when communities are segregated, the likelihood of violence increases.
The conference concluded with a panel discussion on the next steps religious leaders can take, both nationally and locally.