Former British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, yesterday launched an initiative to improve relations between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria that is characterised by mutual suspicion and hostilities.
Blair, who is collaborating with the Archbishop Canterbury designate, Bishop Justin Welby, and Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan to bring people of the two religions closer, has reached out to leaders of the two groups in the country.
The task is being executed under the aegis of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, founded by the former PM.
As part of the efforts to achieve the objective, Blair, Welby and Muhammad took part in a videoconference between Muslim and Christian students to encourage greater dialogue and understanding between the religions.
The President, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, and Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar III, lauded the initiative, which they hoped would help in reducing rancour between adherents of the two religions.
However, President Goodluck Jonathan, who also spoke at the launch of the programme, described religious tension in the country as politically motivated.
The Blair initiative took off on a day Boko Haram, whose insurgency has worsened relations between Muslims and Christians, went on a killing spree in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, killing about eight persons.
Four other persons were also killed in Bichi, Kano State, during a clash between Muslims and Christians.
The initiative's launch also occurred on day that the British Government imposed a ban on Boko Haram, accusing the sect of killing its citizen and an Italian national last March.
The Blair Foundation said in a statement that its work was aimed at breaking down barriers and giving the students the knowledge to resist extremist voices and ideology as a way of engendering long-term peace for the next generation in Nigeria.
"The Tony Blair Faith Foundation will embark on a plan of action with local Christian and Muslim faith leaders and young people," the statement said.
According to the foundation, religious leaders and young people will work together, as well as with the foundation, to build sustainable co-existence through joint leadership, education and action on shared challenges, such as preventing deaths from malaria.
The statement described the foundation's high school programme, titled 'Face to Faith', as a channel for bringing high school students together in over 19 countries so they can learn from each other directly; learn to respect difference - not fear it - and ultimately replace conflict with cooperation.
Blair, during the video conference, said understanding and respecting different faith were central to securing sustainable peace, particularly where those who seek to misuse religion for violent ends aim to destroy it.
"My foundation and I are deeply committed to addressing the challenges of religious reconciliation in Nigeria. Understanding and respecting different faith is central to securing sustainable peace, particularly where those who seek to misuse religion for violent ends aim to destroy it.
"Bishop Justin Welby has been doing extremely good work in Nigeria towards exactly this goal. I hope that over the coming months, the work he and my foundation do will go towards healing the rifts and divisions amongst faith in the country, bringing unity and peaceful co-existence," he stated.
Welby, in his contribution, said he came to Nigeria for the first time 34 years ago and he had made over 70 visits since then.
"I am both challenged and profoundly excited by this initiative. In service to Nigeria, it offers a contribution to the hope of peace across the whole country.
"It is a service, there is no question of bringing some external solutions, and peace and development in this country are always made possible only by Nigerians.
"Thank you for allowing me to contribute to the future of a country I admire and love," he added.
Oritsejafor while thanking Blair for the initiative said the solution to religious violence lies with Nigerians.
He said there was no alternative to dialogue to resolve crisis, adding that dialogue must be progressive with set objectives achievable within a stipulated time.
He said he and the Sultan had an understanding of what needed to be done but the challenge was for them to pass the understanding to their followers.
In his remarks, the Sultan called on Nigerians to embrace peace, saying those who engage in religious violence are in the minority and the majority of Nigerians are peace loving and non-violent.
While expressing confidence in the ability of Nigerians to resolve the crisis in the country, he appealed to all compatriots to choose peace.
In his contribution, Primate of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), Reverend Nicholas Okoh, said religion had become a victim in the hands of political predators.
According to him, religion has been misused and abused by politicians, adding that the greatest task before religious leaders is how to rescue religion from the hands of politicians.
Jonathan, represented by the Minister of Housing and Urban Development, Ms. Ama Pepple, blamed tension between Christians and Muslims on those exploiting their differences for political gains.
He expressed concern that young people were being seduced by false prophets and being led into the path of violence and hatred, just as he urged religious leaders to ensure that religion was not misused or abused to justify violence.
The president said: "Inter-religious dialogue is already playing an important role in our society. The Federal Government continues to promote religious harmony by constantly engaging the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council, jointly chaired by the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and the Sultan of Sokoto.
"While progress on this front is satisfactory, it must be pointed out that some of the religious tension in the country are politically motivated.
"We must now use both platforms to call on all believers to reject religiously anchored-violence, advance tolerance and promote mutual understanding."
The president also stressed the imperatives of dialogue to engender peace and development.
Meanwhile, gunmen suspected to be members of Boko Haram yesterday raided houses in Maiduguri during which they reportedly killed eight persons.
According to a security source, the fundamentalists attacked two parts of the town, Polo and Bukar Lawan, searching for their targets.
During a raid on a target's residence at about 7.30 am, the terrorists killed three of the man's children when they discovered that he was not at home.
They were said to have equally moved into a neighbouring house, which they set ablaze when they could not find the occupant.
At Lawan Bukar, the sect members were said to have gone on a killing spree, prompting inhabitants of the area to flee their residences.
It was gathered that at the end of the siege on the area, which lasted for 30 minutes, five persons were killed and several others injured.
Attempts to get an official confirmation were unsuccessful as the spokesperson of the Joint Task Force (JTF), Lt. Col. Sagir Musa, could not be reached on his mobile phones.
Yesterday was also a bloody day in Bichi where four persons were killed, many others injured and property destroyed in a clash between Muslims and Christians.
The crisis, according to a resident who craved anonymity, started following a blasphemous remark a Christian tailor was said to have made about Islam.
The remark, it was learnt, angered his customer, said to be a Muslim, who mobilised others to attack the tailor. This led to a free-for-all between adherents of the two religions.
Normalcy was restored a few hours later following the deployment of a combined team of soldiers and policemen.
But the state Commissioner of Police, Alhaji Ibrahim Idris, said nobody was killed during the clash, adding, "The tailor that was alleged to have uttered the blasphemous statement has been rescued and taken to a safe place.
"We quickly mobilised the local Imams who tried their best to see that people were calmed down. And with the help of the community leaders, we were able to restore normalcy and we were able to rescue the innocent tailor, in whose shop the whole thing started."
As sect continues to grow in in notoriety, the British Interior Ministry last night placed a ban on the Boko Haram set, accusing the group of murdering its citizen and an Italian.
A source at the Interior Ministry who made the announcement described the sect as "a Nigeria-based terrorist organisation motivated by an anti-Nigerian government and anti-Western agenda".
The ban may not be unconnected with the murder of Chris McManus, a Briton and an Italian citizen, Franco Lamolinara, leading to a diplomatic row between the Italian government and UK officials a few months back.
"An order has been approved today by parliament which will proscribe Boko Haram from midnight on Thursday evening, making membership of, and support for, the organisation a criminal offence," said a source.
Reuters quoted the UK Minister of State for Immigration, Mark Harper, as informing the British parliament that the group should be held accountable for the murder of the two men.
Harper was said to have told the parliament, "It is believed to be responsible for the murders of British national, Christopher McManus, and his Italian co-worker Franco Lamolinara, in March 2012."