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Cardinal Onaiyekan On Catholics Response To African Traditional Religious Believers & Muslims

In his keynote address and interaction with 200 young attendees at the Church Life Africa (CLA) 2023 conference, Cardinal John Onaiyekan embarked on a thoughtful discourse, imparting guidance to young Catholics on responding to fellow believers from different faiths, particularly African Traditional Religion (ATR) adherents and Muslims.


Onaiyekan articulated that when faced with challenges from Christians who have adopted African traditional beliefs and accuse Christianity of being wielded as a tool of colonialism that eroded native African cultures and values, the appropriate response should be, "I welcome the opportunity to learn from your perspective on the aspects of traditional religion that have eluded me."


The retired archbishop further emphasized that if sincerity prevails and mischief is absent (steering clear of exploiting the darker aspects of African traditional religion), these individuals would recognize the inherent moral values within the African tradition, especially in areas like marriage where the African ethos often surpasses that of the West, except in cases of polygamy.


"African traditional religion does not endorse misconduct. Many Africans embraced Christianity due to the harmony between the teachings of African traditional religion and Christianity."


Reflecting on his late father's decision to embrace Christianity over traditional practices, the clergyman recounted his father's explanation: "The missionaries arrived and enlightened me about Olorun (God) whom I worship. They narrated how He offered His only son, who died on the cross for us—a concept I was unaware of in Olorun. So, I am resolute in my choice of serving God in this new way."


"We must reclaim our traditional African values in marriage before they vanish, as our commitment to marriage exceeds that of the Western world."


Likewise, Cardinal Onaiyekan urged Nigerian Christians and Muslims to shift their focus from the disparities between Christianity and Islam to their shared convictions. He stressed the importance of recognizing the linguistic disparities as part of a larger linguistic mosaic. Both religions share common tenets: belief in Jesus Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, fasting, prayer, and reliance on God.


"The common ground between Christians and Muslims is much broader than the divisions we emphasize. Despite differing perspectives on Jesus Christ, Islam places high regard on him, even more than Mohammed. Additionally, the virgin birth of Jesus is a shared belief, even though it may not be universally accepted by all Protestants. Yet, amidst debates over the hijab and microphones, we tend to overlook these shared bonds."


Cardinal Onaiyekan further emphasized, "By understanding the language nuances, we can interpret 'Alhamdulillah' as 'praise be to God' and 'As-Salamu Alaykum' as 'peace be with you.' This comprehension eliminates any need for concern when these phrases are voiced, as there's no cause for Christian discomfort with anyone praising God."


Regarding the integration of African culture into the liturgy, contributing to the distinct identity of the African church, Onaiyekan drew attention to the church's document on enculturation within the Catholic Church.


He clarified, "The church's core message remains constant, though the expression may differ. For instance, in church praises, one can sing the Gloria (in Latin) or extol God using the local dialect accompanied by drums. The focus remains on grasping the essence of our faith and ensuring our actions align with those principles," the Cardinal concluded.

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