The Importance of Building and Sustaining a Culture of Religious Freedom: Lessons from Nigeria and Kenya

by vaughn_admin  //  

April 15, 2017

Under Caesar’s Sword is a three-year, collaborative global research project by a team of scholars to investigate how Christian communities respond when their religious freedom is severely violated. A public report with the findings of this project will be launched at the Public Symposium: What is to be Done? on April 20, 2017 in Washington, D.C. 

This series of blog posts draws from scholars’ research, personal reflections, and responses to current situations of religious persecution. See all posts in the series: Reflections on Under Caesar’s Sword

Through my own research on how Christians in northeastern Nigeria and coastal-northeastern Kenya have responded to attacks by Boko Haram and al-Shabaab respectively, it has become clear to me that religious freedom is not something that a state’s constitution can guarantee. As important as constitutional guarantees are, religious freedom will only be realized in reality if there is a culture of religious freedom.  Such a culture is based on mutual respect and that is best realized through interaction and ongoing dialogue between members (and not just leaders) of different religious groups. A culture of religious freedom makes religious persecution practically unthinkable for most people. This does not mean that we never find religious extremists and those who seek to persecute religious minorities where there is a culture of religious freedom. However, where there is a culture of religious freedom, such extremists will find it difficult to recruit disciples and the vast majority of their co-religionists will reject attempts to demonize members of other religious groups. The question is, how do people forge and sustain a culture conducive to religious freedom, particularly where religious persecution has sowed the seeds of distrust?

The constitutions of Nigeria and Kenya enshrine religious freedom, yet Christians in some parts of both countries have enjoyed very little of it. They have been the targets of rather unpredictable killing sprees waged by Islamist groups that the governments of both countries have had difficulty subduing. Boko Haram is thought responsible for as many as 13,000 deaths in Nigeria since the insurgency began, with more than 6,000 of those deaths occurring in the year 2014 alone. That is more than the deaths for which the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is thought to be responsible in that same year (Global Terrorism Index 2015). No doubt, Muslims as well as Christians have suffered violence at the hands of Boko Haram. However, Christians have been targeted because of their religious identity and in many cases this has also meant an immediate death sentence. One Catholic priest working in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State (the epicenter of the Boko Haram insurgency) said, “Christians of every denomination are their [Boko Haram’s] targets.”[i] A Catholic leader in the nearby town of Yola noted, “If you are able to recite the profession of faith, the Shahadah, you are spared. If not, you will be killed.”[ii]

In Kenya, the “Movement of Striving Youth” or al-Shabaab has been the primary source of Christian persecution. Al-Shabaab began as a militia of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia between the years 2003 and 2004. It emerged as a response to the collapse of central political authority in Somalia and, like Boko Haram, promoted Sharia as the answer to lawlessness and immorality.[iii] At first confined to Somalia, al-Shabaab gradually became more ambitious and began to establish itself in northeastern Kenya, an impoverished area of the country populated largely by Somali-Kenyans who are mostly Muslims. As in Nigeria, Christians and their churches, not just police posts and military installations, became targets of al-Shabaab’s violent attacks.

Nigeria’s diverse Christian community has responded to persecution perpetrated by Boko Haram in a variety of ways. While most Christians have fled the northeastern parts of the country most heavily under attack by Boko Haram, many Christian leaders have come together with leaders of other Christian denominations to find ways to cooperate. Besides working to put pressure on the Nigerian government to devote more resources to protecting local populations, several Christian leaders have sought the cooperation of “moderate” Muslim leaders in an attempt to mount inter-faith efforts to prevent Boko Haram from gaining more influence over Muslims in the northeast.

Christians in Kenya have responded in different ways to the religious persecution they have experienced at the hands of al-Shabaab. Like their fellow Christians in Nigeria, they have sought to get the Kenyan government to become more effective at providing security where there are vulnerable populations. However, it is clear that many of these leaders think that the longer-term solution to the problem of religious persecution is greater inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. They have also reached out to Muslim leaders in an attempt to promote inter-religious cooperation and prevent al-Shabaab from successfully recruiting and mounting attacks.

Most Christian leaders we interviewed in Nigeria and Kenya indicated that they think religious freedom, if it is to be established and sustained, must be rooted in a culture of tolerance and mutual respect.  It is difficult to imagine how such a culture could ever emerge without significant and sustained inter-religious engagement. Most Christian leaders in northeastern Nigeria and Kenya have redoubled their efforts to such inter-religious engagement.

At this writing, it is too early to tell just how effective inter-religious efforts have been at promoting a culture of religious freedom.  However, there is some preliminary evidence suggests that Christian leaders’ efforts to reach out to Muslim religious leaders have been effective in providing Christians in certain areas of Nigeria and Kenya with greater security. In Nigeria in particular, there are numerous examples of Muslims hiding and defending Christians from Boko Haram militants. Most Christian leaders have refused to respond to persecution perpetrated by Islamists by demonizing Muslims. Instead, many have reached out to Muslims leaders to build what Kenyan Christian leaders called “resiliency.” While Nigerian Christian leaders did not use the word “resiliency,” they too talked of building bridges with Muslims to undermine the narrative promoted by Boko Haram to recruit young Muslims.


Christian and Muslim religious leaders in both Kenya and Nigeria are attempting to get their governments to protect vulnerable Christian populations more effectively while realizing that ultimately they must work with Muslim religious leaders to build and sustain a culture of religious freedom. While much more research is necessary, evidence from Nigeria and Kenya suggests that inter-religious efforts to promote religious tolerance and mutual respect can successfully achieve their goals. At the very least, such efforts deserve greater support from those concerned with the expansion of religious freedom.

Fr. Robert Dowd, C.S.C. is associate professor of Political Science and founding director of the Ford Family Program in Human Development Studies and Solidarity at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, University of Notre Dame. He is a scholar on the Under Caesar’s Sword project investigating Christian responses in Nigeria, Kenya, and Sudan. He is the author of Christianity, Islam, and Liberal Democracy: Lessons from Sub-Saharan Africa (Oxford, 2015).

[i] Interview with author August 13, 2015.

[ii] Interview with author August 13, 2015.

[iii] Stig Jale Hansen, Al Shabaab: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Under Caesar’s Sword is a three-year, collaborative global research project that investigates how Christian communities respond when their religious freedom is severely violated. A public report with the findings of this report will be launched at the Public Symposium: What is to be Done? on April 20, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

**All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.**