By Stephen Ojapah MSP
After the forty-day prayer and fasting for Christians especially Catholics, our Muslim brothers and sisters have begun the annual Ramadan rituals. I will get back to this theme in a short while in detail. For us Catholics, it is now the season of Easter, a fifty day period before the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Despite the many terrible national tragedies that have engulfed our nation Nigeria, we celebrate the hope that keeps us moving in the midst of the dark tunnel. While our Muslim brothers and sisters engage in this spiritual battle. I am touched by the fundamentals of Lent and the ongoing Ramadan. The core values for these seasons are noble; in the forty day period that Christians observed Lent, it was characterized by prayer; fasting and almsgiving. As usual, our shepherds wrote letters to help guide us in the just concluded spiritual exercise.
In his Lenten Message the Holy Father reminded us of the need to fast from the things that weigh us down. “Too many things weigh us down and stop us from coming close to God. It is left for each of us to make a deliberate effort at identifying the heavy baggage that we carry, those issues that stop us from giving our undivided attention to God. These include, social media, entertainment and telephone, among many others. Amidst the noise, the chaos and the daily routines of work, we often have little time to commit to God. Our God understands but He is patiently waiting to receive us at that special corner of our room, before the Blessed Sacrament in our Chapel, Parish, and Church”. You will hear him remind you: ‘Do not let your heart be troubled. Trust in God and trust in me (John. 14: 1).
The Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto Mathew Hassan Kukah, in his Lenten message to the Priests Religious and the lay faithful of the diocese, said: “Over time, blind materialism and the search for personal comfort have offered us a cross-less Christianity in which the cross is a burden, a curse. We hear it in the popular saying today, ‘It is not our portion!’ Lent he said offers us a chance to understand that; our present sufferings cannot be compared to the glory that will be revealed (Rom. 8: 18). Lent helps us understand that as Christians, trials, anguish, persecution, hunger, nakedness, the sword cannot separate us from the love of Christ (Romans. 8: 35). Lent prepares us to embrace the triumph of the risen Christ. This is why Christians can endure, nay, boast of their trial because they know that; these trials produce patience; patience produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because the love of God has been poured into our hearts (Romans. 5: 5).
The holy month of Ramadan is the most anticipated time of the year and is observed with full enthusiasm by the Muslim community across the world. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and falls after the end of Shaban month. During the 29-30 days of Ramadan, Muslims across the globe spend their time fasting, praying, giving back to the community and introspecting. A striking semblance with what Christians do at Lent. Ramadan usually varies in accordance to the Moon sighting. According to the teachings in Islam, Ramadan holds greater importance as it is the first time when Allah SWT (God) revealed the Quran (Holy book of Muslims) to Prophet Muhammad PBUH. The fasting during this month is considered as one of the five pillars of Islam. The five pillars of Islam are Shahada (profession of faith), Salat (Prayer), Zakat (Almsgiving), Sawm (Fasting) and Hajj (Pilgrimage). During this holy month, Muslims across the world observe fasts between dawn and dust. Fasting has been made compulsory on adult Muslims except if you are seriously ill, pregnant, suffering from a severe disease and menstruating. During this period Muslims across the world devote their time to reciting the Holy Quran and also perform nightly prayers. According to the teachings in Islam, the ‘sawab’ (rewards) multiply during the month of Ramadan and you get 7 times more ‘sawab’ for every good deed. Muslims, during Ramadan, avoid smoking, sexual activities and any sinful behaviour and instead focus on reciting Quran, prayers, charity and taqwa, which is heightened awareness of Allah SWT. Muslims believe that when the month of Ramadan arrives, the gates of Jannah (Paradise) are opened and the gates of Jahannum (hell) are locked up and devil is put in chains. During Ramadan, Muslims starts their day with Suhoor or Sehri, which is the predawn meal before the Morning Prayer, Fajr. During the day, Muslims recite Quran and perform prayers. In the evening, people feast on Iftar, which is the nightly meal that breaks the fast after the evening prayer, Maghrib. Usually, Muslims break their fast by eating dates and drinking water followed by a lavish meal.
After breaking their fast, special night prayers, known as Taraweeh, are held during which the Quran is recited. In the last 10 days of the month, intense prayers take place during the Laylatul Qadr or the Night of Power, which is believed to be the holiest night of the year. The Laylatul Qadr may fall on the 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th or 29th night of the month. The Laylatul Qadr is a commemoration of the night when the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhamad.
All these intense spiritual activities are to enable us, function better as humans, develop more humanity, dispense mercy and act justly. For Christians, Muslims, and all other religions; our spiritual renewal should not be an empty ritual devoid of concrete action. One of the most pressing needs of our times is social cohesion and a meaningful interreligious dialogue. For decades, the Catholic Church has been leading the way in the search for a meaningful Dialogue both in principle and in practice. Two events have recently caught my attention and I feel it should serve as a guide to what our world seeks, especially for us here in Nigeria.
In 2020, The Missionary Society of St Paul of Nigeria, built a Mosque in Pagada community for villagers, under Gwagwalada Area council Abuja. Pagada is a remote village in Abuja that has no access to electricity, roads and potable water. There is no single government presence in Pagada. The Missionary Society of St Paul has been offering FREE education for the villagers for the past twenty years. There are over two hundred (200) children out of the five hundred and twenty-two (522) who are accessing the FREE education offered by the Missionary Society of St Paul in Pagada from Nursery classes to Junior Secondary School. With all the favour of granting the Muslim children free education, the Muslim community demanded a Mosque to be built for them, to settle an age long crisis between Christians and Muslims. Happily, the Missionary Society of St Paul, acted in an unprecedented manner by organizing a funding for the building of the Mosque in Pagada.
On the 12th of April, the Catholic Bishop of Yola, commissioned a housing estate, in Adamawa State for the victims of Boko Haram crises. The housing estate, has a borehole, a school, a clinic, a church and a mosque. Different agencies according to the bishop contributed to the building of the clinic, the school, and the borehole. But the resources of the Diocese was committed to build a Mosque for the displaced Muslim victims of Boko Haram. How else should we practice dialogue if such practical actions are not involved? That for me should be the spirit of Lent and Ramadan. “Actions that go beyond photographs and grand speeches, actions like having a Muslim President, Traditional Ruler, Senator, Imam, Businessmen laying the foundation for the building of a Church for Christians.” Kukah said. Concluding his Homily at the silver Jubilee celebration of Bishop Mamza. Bishop Kukah said: “By using church funds to build a mosque, Bishop Mamza has acted quite scandalously in the eyes of some of his faithful. But every sincere and honest leader must scandalize his own constituency who, often imprisoned by ignorance, see public office as the turn of their kinsmen and women (whether by faith or ethnicity), to eat. However, Christianity is a scandalous religion. Jesus scandalized the people when he befriended and ate with sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors (Mathew. 9:10, Mark 2: 13). It was scandalous for Him to allow himself to be killed in the most humiliating manner on the cross. Every honest leader must cross the threshold of prejudice. It is the way we can build a complicated society like Nigeria. Boko Haram, banditry, kidnapping and all the negative things that threatened to drown our country are evidence of the consequences of our becoming prisoners to prejudice. In the Spirit of Ramadan, we hope all Politicians and Religious leaders from the two dominant religions in Nigeria will light their candles from the monumental and historic gestures of Bishop Stephen Dami Mamza, and the Missionary Society of St Paul.
Fr Stephen Ojapah is a priest of the Missionary Society of St Paul. He is equally the director for Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism for the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, a member of IDFP. He is also a KAICIID Fellow. (email@example.com)