FEATURE ARTICLE

Augustine C. OhanweWednesday, February 2, 2011
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CHRISTIAN SECT DESTROYS ATR SHRINES:
A PROVOCATIVE ACT AND A RECIPE FOR VIOLENCE

n an already turbulent and disquieting Nigeria, further religious uprising will create more "war fronts" for the security establishment, and at the same time add extra volatile dimension to the already charged polity. The United Congress of Mbaise Christians in Imo State, Nigeria is said to have destroyed more than 100 shrines belonging to the African Traditional Religion (ATR). The destruction was alleged to have been done with impunity, and the sect is said to have vowed not to rest on its religious oars till every shrine within that region is done away with.


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The pervading fear is that, after the destruction of shrine in Mbaise zone, the sect might move to Oyo to burn the Shango shrine as well as the Ifa Oracle at Ile-Ife before returning to do away with Amadioha and Uzi Shrines, as well many other ATR Shrines scattered across the nation. It is the silence of the state police command and the government of Imo State that will offer this Christian sect the launching pad to make further foray into other areas within and outside the state.

Religious zealots should be made to grasp that God is not a member of any particular religion. No single religion can claim to be the authentic religion of God. There are holy men and women in Hinduism, Mohammedanism, African Traditional Religion, Christianity, Judaism, Confucianism, etc. God is like the sun. It has no boundary. To pigeonhole the sun into one specific religion is to limit its rays, which in my opinion is practically impossible to achieve. It our ignorance of the true nature of God that propel us toward the assumption that one particular religion is the only gateway to salvation. It will be a suicidal attempt therefore to bring the entire world within the fold of one organised religious belief except that universal religion which the Sun teaches us.

What the leadership of the Christian sect in Mbaise have failed to realise is that the action of its members could generate retaliatory acts from ATR members. A reaction that would involve among other things, the destruction Christian churches.

African Traditional Religion has existed before the incursion of Christianity into Africa. The religion has no founder. It has no pope and no missionaries. Their members do not go from house to house, parks to squares seeking for conversion to their religion as other religions do. They are nonviolence in character and have never been implicated in any act likely to overthrow the government. They have never been involved in bringing down any bank in Nigeria or accused of money laundering. They do not dogmatise their religion and do not want to impose it as a state religion as other religions do.

They believe in God but worship him in a way at variance with Christianity. Does this visible difference sufficient enough for Christians to destroy the ATR Shrines? After burning their material Shrine, would they be able to also burn the shrines in their hearts? Absolutely no. It cannot be torched, and this brings us to the fact that you can take away everything that belongs to a man except his thought.

Christians might be puzzled to learn that there exits lots of similarities between Christianity and ATR. Both believe in the existence of a central God Ė Chukwu, Allah, Olodumare, etc. Both Christians and ATR members pray to intermediaries to covey their petitions to God. But while members of Christian faith pray to God via Jesus and saints, members of ATR pray to God through their deities and ancestors. Some however, pray direct to their God.

Christians practice sacrifice through fasting, candle burning, repentance, etc. Members of ATR practice the sacrifice of the old testament which involve the use of animal sacrifice as done in Leviticus, plus palm wine dregs and kola nuts to represent wine and bread in Christian method.

What is a shrine? Itís a holy or sacred place exclusively dedicated to deity, saints hero, ancestors etc. Shrine is not limited to ATR. It exists in many other religion and non religious organisations. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Wicca, Shito, Chinese folk religion maintain shrines. To be added to the list is war memorial shrines, which of course is non religious but visitors to such shrines do perform some sort of religious rituals to venerate the souls of the heroes who have passed on.

The Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law, Canons of 1230 and 1231 read: ďThe term shrine means a church or other sacred places which with the approval of the local Ordinary, is by reason of devotion frequented by the faithful as pilgrims.Ē

In the US, many Christians maintain backyard and indoor shrines. Some of the shrines resemble altars because they are composed of statues often placed in a niche or grotto. Christian shrines in Europe are too many to be counted. In Spain there is the famous Montserrat Shrine. In Switzerland, Antoiusgrotte is one of the famous shrines in that country. It is located inside a cave.

Islam has its shrines. One of the important shrine is Iman Hussain ibn Ali Shrine in Karbala, Iraq. There is another famous shrine in Saudi Arabia called Cave of Hira.

The shrine is located about 2 miles from Mecca on the mountain named Jabel Al Nar in the Herjaz region. It is venerated for being the location where Muslims believe Mohammed received his first revelations from God (Allah) through the angel Jibreel. Also known as angel Gabriel to Christians.

Priests of the African Traditional Religion are mostly healers. They diagnose diseases in ways totally different from the orthodox medical doctors. They use herbs and other ingredients to affect cures, often holistic in nature.

My first witness of the credibility of the ATR healers was at the age 14. I was playing a football match in which my best friend was on the opposing team. After his marvelous dribbling, he was at the verge of scoring a goal against my team. But this writer kicked both his leg and the ball in my bid to prevent him from achieving his aim. I did succeed in preventing him but that brought the game to its chilling end. My friendís shin got a compound fracture from my terrible kick. I saw his leg dangled, bone pierced out and blood oozed while he groaned and occasionally yelled with pain. I, the author of his sorry situation (though done without malice aforethought) was at the verge of jumping out of my skin.

I watched as he was placed on a stretcher and driven to hospital. I was with the group that transported him. When the orthopaedic doctor spoke of the possibility of amputation, chill took control of my spine and my curly hairs stood straight. When the news of the amputation reached my mom, she advised the parents of my friend to reject the idea. She rather suggested that my friend be brought to my grandpa, who was a noble philosopher of the African Traditional Religion, a herbalist and a bone repairer. My friend was brought to him. He reached for his huge raffia bag and brought out his healing ingredients. Holding them firmly in his hand he spoke to the my friendís dislocated shin and started to fix them to their biological positions. "In three monthís time you will be able to dance twist," he said to my friend while directing a benevolence gaze at him soothingly. From my own boyish, visual x-ray of my grandpa's facial contour, his word was his bond, and he delivered his expression with the confidence of a man who knew his job. My friend spent only 7 days in my grandpaís shrine before re-uniting with his parent to recuperate at home for further 14 days before getting back to school.

Few months later we organized the end-of-the-years party, a party that involved snacks, music and dance. When the DJ spun Chubby Checkerís twist record, my friend, with his newly healed fractured leg took the centre stage and twisted to the delight of all and sundry. At the end of the show he came 1st in the twist competition while this writer took the 2nd position. Another classmate who went by the sobriquet, Coffin, came 3rd.

What is interesting in this story is that the traditional healer fixed my friendís fractured shin and he was able to use his leg and live his normal life. He, my friend is alive and reading this piece. Perhaps traveling back in time to recapture the scene and all that transpired on that painful day.

Even though some religions have been dogmatised and politicised, there are still good things in every religion. The original founders of each religion developed their religious teaching on the prevailing circumstances of the time they lived. The tide of change had been swirling around, and many religions still keep to the original tenets of their faith. However, there are some of their religious expressions that have withstood the test of time.

The ATR upholds that:

What one sows is what one reaps.

Mohammedanism

Wherever you go, wherever you may rest, may the peace of Good Allah keep you blest.

Judaism

What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.

Christianity

All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even unto them.

Hinduism

As one may ascend to the housetop by ladder, rope, or bamboo, so there are many ways to reach God.

Confucianism

To be in one's own heart in kindly sympathy with all things; this is the nature of righteousness.

When Pope John Paul II was with us in flesh, he visited Benin Republic on the West Coast of Africa and apologised to the country for centuries of ridicules African Traditional Religion and continentís cultural beliefs have suffered in the hands of the Western world. Mark you, Benin is the home of voodoo, one of the continentís enduring religion.

During a prayer for world peace organised by the Vatican, the same Pope invited members of Judaism, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, African Traditional Religion, etc to the Vatican. Different religions congregated and were requested to pray for peace in their own style. The Pope knew that God hears all languages. Those of us who pretend to be more catholic than the Pope or more protestant than Martin Luther should borrow a leaf from Pope John Paul II.

There are religions that believe in God but do not keep shrines. They do not have the right to go around destroying shrines of other religions in the name of perceived superiority of their religion. The United Congress of Mbaise Christians should be restrained from further provocative attack on the ATR shrines.

It is interesting to note that while the ATR is being attacked in Nigeria, foreigners are importing it into their countries. ATR has many disciples in foreign lands, especially, the USA.

Through interaction with Afolabi Epega, a fifth-generation Babalowo, whose grandfather had recorded numerous odu, Philip Neimark honed his knowledge of Orisa traditions and his divination skills. Those efforts resulted in the founding of the Ifa Foundation of North America.

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