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Nigeria’s Anti-Religious Discrimination Bill Targeting Christian Entities: Church Leaders

Church leaders in Nigeria have opposed a Bill before the National Assembly that, in a bid to prohibit religious discrimination, the religious leaders say, seems to target “Christian institutions” in the West African nation.

While the proposal law dubbed “Religious Discrimination (Prohibition, Prevention, Etc.) Bill 2021,” seeks to enforce provisions on religious freedom and tolerance as enshrined in the Constitution of Nigeria, Universal Declaration Human Rights, and other related international conventions, Church leaders in Nigeria see it as a ploy to legalize the wearing of the Muslim headscarf (hijab) in Christian schools.

Speaking during the Tuesday, April 13 consensus meeting with the sponsor of the Bill and House of Representatives member, Said Musa Abdullahi, the Church leaders under the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) observed that the proposed law was targeting Christian entities.

“The intent of the Bill is to target Christian institutions in Nigeria ... The central focus of your document is hijab. This bill is a bill for hijab,” Prof. Yusuf Turaki, a CAN official said, adding, “Every other place is allowed to wear hijab. Christians establish institutions in order to serve their God. I do not see how this Bill is going to protect Christian institutions.”

Section 4(1) (b) of the Bill reads, “A person shall not, directly or indirectly or by any combination of the two, be intimidated, harassed, victimized or discriminated against on the basis of religious belief or activity or on the ground of manifestation of religion or religious belief or any other ground of a characteristic that people who have or engage in the religious belief or activity generally have.”

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A person shall also not be discriminated against “on the ground of a characteristic that people who have or engage in the religious belief or activity are generally presumed to have or manifest which may include wearing religious emblem, head cover, hijab, scarf, habit, decent and modest religious dress,” the Bill further reads.

Addressing himself to Musa Abdullahi during the April 13 meeting, Prof. Turaki posed, “Are Muslim women denied the right of wearing hijabs? If there are, your Bill stands the right. If not, your bill doesn’t stand.”

In the opinion of the CAN official who holds a Doctorate in Social Ethics, by using the Bill to legalize the wearing of the hijab in all institutions including Christian ones, the legislation is only going to add to the crises already created by Sharia law.

He explained, “We have Boko Haram in the Northeast because of sharia; we have bandits, herdsmen, those states are now called sharia states. They said they are going to bring development in the far North but today, it is a sorry state. So, by bringing a hijab, you are going to add division to chaos, crisis.”

“Give it legal backing, it will set Nigeria ablaze,” Prof. Turaki, who has authored four books on religion, said referencing the hijab.

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“This Bill is going to create crises upon crises,” the former National Vice-President of CAN added and as a way forward, recommended, “The Bill should be withdrawn and not to be discussed and passed by the national assembly.”

According to CAN’s National President, Rev. Samson Ayokunle, if passed, the Bill, whose suspension they had called for in March “will enforce discrimination rather than war against it.” 

“The Bill is causing wahala (trouble). You don’t sit on my nose because you have a right to sit down. Beyond your good intent to solve a problem, we may be creating many other ones. There is no mutual respect,” he said.

Offering legal backing to the hijab controversy in Africa’s most populous nation “will wake up a problem which is sleeping,” the President of the ecumenical body, which includes representatives from the Catholic Church in Nigeria, noted.

“Why do we have not to wage war against ourselves?” Rev. Ayokunle posed and remarked, “Wearing a hijab has not made any student more intelligent. Piety is in the heart. In a multi-ethnic nation like ours, school uniform creates uniformity, classless.” 

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The Nigerian Christian leader cautioned legislator Abdullahi against proceeding with the Bill saying, “Your name will go into history as one who disregarded the rights of the Christians to promote their own in their institutions. Once you pass that bill, be prepared for a state of confusion.”

Referencing the hijab controversy in Kwara State  that saw chaos arise after some ten Christian schools turned away students and staff wearing the headscarf, the CAN President probed, “Why should anybody wage a war in terms of wearing a dress against them (the schools)?”

“What would have been more respectful is that in all the public institutions, yes, wear hijab; nobody is fighting about or against that. But to now say that in your school also, we must put that there; It will not be respected,” he added.

Prof. Sam Amadi, another CAN official posed during the April 13 meeting, “Do we really need another legislation? Even in Europe, where there is an issue with hijab, there are no such laws. They do not need a law.”

“The bill seems to me that it is primarily focused on hijab. It is focused on hijab even in private schools. It creates a problem. Even some of these provisions undermine the rights of religion,” Prof. Amadi said, adding, “It seems to me is overreaching, and undermines religious freedom.”

In his submissions during the April 13 meeting where he sought the support of the Christian leaders, Musa Abdullahi noted that the Bill “was not really about the hijab issue” but was “informed by some of the things we see happening in the country.”

“I don’t subscribe to it no matter what coloration is given to it. The sponsors of this Bill should drop it now. We should not go further...Let this bill be dropped,” the General Secretary of CAN, Joseph Daramola said.