ABUJA, Nigeria (RNS) — When Fatima Isiaka, a religious Muslim teacher, asked the cab driver to drop her off at St. Kizito Catholic Church in Abuja, the driver thought she was lost.
“The cab man that took me to the church, a Muslim, was surprised to see me enter a church,” Isiaka said, recalling the summer 2014 meeting. “He told me, ‘This is a church!’ I said, “Yes, I know.’”
Isiaka was part of an innovative effort to bring Christian and Muslim women together in hopes of fostering religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence. The Women of Faith Peacebuilding Network was started in 2011 by Sister Agatha Ogochukwu Chikelue, of the Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy congregation, and local Muslim businesswoman Maryam Dada Ibrahim.
Isiaka, an observant Muslim who wears a gray jilbab, a long head covering and robe, the traditional dress of some Nigerian Muslim women, is a respected Muslim leader in Abuja. Today, she serves as deputy director in the network's Abuja branch.
She looks back fondly on her time at the St. Kizito Catholic Church.
“It was an amazing experience and I loved every bit of my stay there,” said Isiaka. “In fact, I found a place in the church where I performed ablution [ritual washing before Muslims' prayer], to set up my mat and pray.”
Since the group began, the Women of Faith Peacebuilding Network’s activities have reached more than 10,000 Muslim and Christian women across the country through seminars, meditations, presentations by religious leaders and dialogue.
The peacebuilding network also offers vocational training in catering, bead making, fashion design and soap production to a smaller group of women who participate in the annual 21-day seminar.
“The empowerment [training] serves as bait to lure more women to the network so that they'll learn peaceful coexistence," said Isiaka. The Swiss Embassy provided seed money to get the vocational training started in 2014. Cardinal John Onaiyekan's Foundation for Peace (COFP), an organization working for peace in northern Nigeria, has sponsored the vocational training in subsequent years.
Chikelue started thinking about how to build bridges between Christians and Muslims in 2008, as northern Nigeria disintegrated into violence. Nigeria's population is evenly divided — about half of Nigerians are Muslim and about half are Christian. Northern Nigeria is majority Muslim, while southern Nigeria is majority Christian. Ensuring equal Christian and Muslim political representation at local, state and national levels is an especially sensitive subject.
Since 2009, Boko Haram, a group of extremist Muslims whose name means "Western education is forbidden," has terrorized northeast Nigeria. The terror group murdered Christians and burned churches, hoping to clear the area of Christian influences and create an Islamic caliphate to rule under Sharia law.
The group has carried out attacks in other parts of Nigeria and targeted moderate Muslims as well. In 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 270 female students in Chibok, Nigeria, prompting the international social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls.
Chikelue knew that religious leaders would need to step up.
“We don’t want to use our religion as a barrier — rather, we want to use it as a stepping stone toward achieving common good,” she said. “The essence of an interfaith group is to break barriers, break the walls and build bridges.”
In Nigeria, some religious clerics forbid their members from even visiting a house of worship from the other religion. But Chikelue dismissed those notions, using the respect afforded to her as a Catholic sister to visit mosques and set up meetings with more moderate Islamic clerics to propose an interfaith network.
But Chikelue knew she couldn’t do it alone.
A parishioner recommended Chikelue contact Ibrahim, a respected leader in the Muslim community. Chikelue visited Ibrahim's office, and within a few months, the two started planning the first meeting between Christian and Muslim women in Abuja. As the capital of Nigeria, Abuja, a growing city with a population of 2.5 million, is more diverse and integrated than other parts of the country. The city is about 40 percent Christian, and the Christian population is growing quickly.
Chikelue and Ibrahim recruited Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the archbishop of Abuja, and Muhammadu Sa'ad Abubakar III, the sultan of Sokoto and president-general of the National Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, to act as patrons of the organization.
It took time, patience and weekly meetings after Sunday Mass to convince the first group of Christian women to sit down with Muslim women.
“That first meeting in 2011 was one of the best meetings we’ve had,” said Chikelue. “The Christian women changed their perceptions about Muslims even after just one dialogue together. Everybody went home happy.”
The women's meetings include presentations by clerics and priests, explaining basic tenets of each religion or challenging the view of religious extremists who say Muslims and Christians should not interact with each other. Sometimes they discuss parts of their religions that overlap — for example, when Abraham plans to sacrifice Isaac, and how both religions interpret the story.
Participants also visit each other for holidays. In 2017, a group of Christian women prepared the evening meal at the mosque to break the fast during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. Muslim women have joined for special church programs, especially the annual end-of-the-year interfaith party organized by Onaiyekan.
The decision to create a women’s peace network was made after careful deliberation about which group would be most effective for fostering peace. Women have a unique way of addressing conflicts, Chikelue explained. "In the family, women manage the home and are closer to their children, making it easy for them to preach peace," she said. It can also be empowering for women, who are often marginalized, to suddenly have a leadership role in creating a more tolerant community. "We also want women to be aware of their role in peacebuilding," Chikelue added.
In 2014, with a special grant from the Swiss embassy, Chikelue began offering vocational training for the women as an added incentive. In a region where the female adult literacy rate is 41 percent, women welcome free empowerment training on sewing, soap making and catering. Basic communication skills, personal hygiene and training on financial literacy and how to start small businesses are also part of the free empowerment program. The training programs also help the women meet people from other religions, getting to know the “other” as well as combating poverty and gender-based violence.
“When there's peace at home, we can achieve peace in the society. That is why we empower women in order to stop gender-based violence between women and their husbands,” Chikelue said.
The women who participate in the peacebuilding network are expected to pass on the information to the children in their communities by making presentations in their elementary and secondary schools about religious tolerance and talking about their experiences working with women from other religions.
“There is also violence that doesn't carry a gun,” explained Chikelue. “There are situations whereby parents don't allow their children to have interaction with children of a different religion, or when they instigate them to go for war against a different religion.”
While the group has worked hard to break down barriers and build friendships between Muslims and Christians, Isiaka knows there is still much work to do.
Still, she is hopeful.
"We have been able to understand each other better and have also passed the message of religious tolerance to our children," she said.
(Iyorah writes for Global Sisters Report, where a version of this story was originally published.)