PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria — Fruitful relationships between Muslims and Christians are possible, even in places wracked by interfaith violence.
More than 250 Bible school leaders took part in seminars on that subject during the Africa Association of Bible Schools’ annual two-day conference in July.
Jonathan Bornman and David Shenk of Eastern Mennonite Missions’ Christian/Muslim Relations Team led the seminars.
“The church in Nigeria, particularly in the northern part of the country, is being persecuted by [the terrorist group] Boko Haram,” Bornman said. “I was aware that I was talking to people who have experienced violence, have suffered and had friends who died.
“But we asked the question: Does Jesus call us to something different, even in the face of persecution and suffering?”
Shenk was one of three main speakers for the conference, “Mission: My Vision.” Bornman assisted and led discussion groups on how the church relates to the Muslim world.
A key scripture was 1 Peter 3:15-16, summarized as: “Confess Christ; share the good news as people ask questions; be gentle and respectful.”
People shared accounts of the church bearing witness in a respectful spirit. They spoke of ways they hoped to implement a spirit of peacemaking in their churches and personal lives.
The chief imam
On July 18, a meeting was arranged between Chief Imam Olarewaju of the central mosque of the Anwar Ul-Islam Movement of Nigeria and Bornman, among other Christian leaders from Port Harcourt.
“The imam told of his concern for peace and gave an example from the life of Mohammed,” Bornman said. “He denounced the actions of Boko Haram. . . . I, in turn, spoke of the Christian understanding that peacemaking is centered in the cross of Jesus, that Jesus forgave his enemies, that the message of the cross is that people can be reconciled with God and with each other.
“Often people have the idea that the issues of faith on which we disagree will harm our relationships. But this isn’t true. The mosque officials seemed genuinely happy that we were there. They wanted to continue the conversation, and we were invited to come back.”
Olarewaju accepted Bornman’s gift of the book A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue.
My food, myself
Bornman spoke on dialogue, witness, peacemaking and hospitality toward Muslim neighbors.
“Many who attended told me they didn’t know it was possible to have a relationship with Muslims,” he said. “They had never heard discussions about witnessing from a place of relationship and hospitality.”
Bornman was surprised to learn that Muslims and Christians often refuse to eat each other’s food shared at occassions such as Eid al-Adha or Christmas.
“We emphasized that the most basic thing a person can do to communicate love to someone is to share a meal with them,” he said. “To reject a person’s food is in some sense to reject them personally. Eating together is the most basic form of relationship.”
He said that since many Christians have Muslim neighbors, there is a privilege of living in peace together.
Bornman and Shenk also visited Mennonite churches and other Christian leaders during their 10 days in Nigeria. Many people said their teaching changed how they will relate to their neighbors, Shenk said.