Aug 2, 2019
One of Nigeria’s leading prelates has warned that the president’s recent actions against the African nation’s small Shi’ite minority is a threat to religious freedom for all believers in the country.
On July 26, a Nigerian court banned the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), accusing it of “terrorism and illegality.”
Nigeria’s 182 million people are nearly evenly divided between Christians and Muslims; however, the vast majority of the Muslims are members of the Sunni branch of Islam.
Shia Islam is a recent import to the country, and most of Nigeria’s 2-4 million Shi’ites are followers of Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, the leader of the IMN.
Zakzaky came to prominence in the aftermath of Iran’s revolution, when the Ayatollah Khomeini became an icon of anti-Western Islam around the world, including among many Sunnis.
Technically, the IMN is open to Sunnis, too, although it is mainly a vehicle for organizing Shi’ites.
Because of its recent origins and Iranian influences, Nigeria’s Shi’ites have been viewed with suspicion by the country’s Sunni Muslims, and been subjected to discrimination and persecution.
Zakazky has been in custody since 2015, when a raid on his residence left hundreds of his followers dead.
The sheikh was later ordered released by a court, but the government refused; deadly clashes at demonstrations in the capital demanding his release are what led to the judicial order calling for the banning of the IMN.
The government accused the group of “terrorist activities, including attacking soldiers, killing policemen, destroying public property and consistently defying state authority.”
The members of the IMN blame the security forces for the violence, and claim their demonstrators aren’t even armed.
Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the Archbishop of Abuja, said the actions against the country’s Shi’ites is a worrying development.
“From my own understanding, the protests were always peaceful, and we never saw them armed,” he told Vatican Radio on July 3