How a bishop became a bridge between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria

When he converted to Christianity, at age 12, Gerald Musa’s father could scarcely have imagined that his son would become the first bishop of his influential Hausa ethnic group.

Though mostly used nowadays to refer to the Pope, bishops in the Catholic Church have traditionally been called “pontifex”, which is Latin for “bridge maker”. This title is particularly appropriate in the case of Bishop Gerald Mamman Musa of Katsina, in northern Nigeria.

Bishop Gerald Mamman Musa, the first Hausa speaking Nigerian to be appointed bishop in Nigeria during a visit to the headquarters of ACN in Germany, in May 2024
Bishop Gerald Mamman Musa, the first Hausa speaking Nigerian to be appointed bishop in Nigeria during a visit to the headquarters of ACN in Germany, in May 2024

In 2023, Gerald Musa became the first ever member of the Hausa ethnic group to be made a bishop. This is particularly significant because the vast majority of Hausas are Muslim, as are many of his family. In fact, the bishop is only a second-generation Christian on his father’s side.

His father converted at the age of 12, but needed the persistence of a grown man to remain a Christian, says the bishop. “The Society of African Missions established a school, which my father had the privilege of attending, but the missionary activities did not last long there. The school closed down, and so did the mission. What happened was that a good number of converts to Christianity reverted to Islam. As far as I know, my father was the only one who remained a Christian.”

He would later go on to become a teacher, and then a headteacher. He also trained catechists for almost 40 years, and helped translate the Bible, and other religious books, into Hausa. Why did he remain a Christian when all his friends reverted?

“He said he saw something different in Christianity. The love that was shown to him by the missionaries, the love he experienced from them, then the education, changed his life entirely. Even when others reverted, he refused to go back to Islam, because he found love and joy. One thing that was remarkable about him was his love for the Eucharist. He said that for 40 years, non-stop, he hardly missed Mass even a single day. He cherished the Eucharist, and he was very deep in the Faith, because he not only embraced the Faith, but he studied the content of the Faith, to see the difference between it and others, both traditional faiths and Islam, and he could clearly see the difference, and he accepted the Christian Faith wholeheartedly.”

In recent years, northern Nigeria has been a difficult region in which to be a Christian, with increases in persecution and new forms of radical Islam taking hold. In these situations, families sometimes turn against relatives who adopt a different faith. It was, therefore, with some hesitation that the bishop informed his extended family of the fact that he had been named a bishop. The reaction, however, took him by surprise.

Bishop Gerald Mamman Musa of Katsina after his solemn ordination
Bishop Gerald Mamman Musa of Katsina after his solemn ordination

“I told them about my episcopal ordination, and they all came, from different towns. They filled two buses! I thought maybe the religious difference would stop them from coming, but they came in great numbers, and they were happy. You could see the happiness in their faces, and it was the grace of God”, Bishop Gerald Musa says.

“Not only my relations, but my primary school classmates who are 95% Muslims – we still keep in touch – also sent five representatives from this class for the ordination, and you could see the happiness and the joy. They also saw the episcopal ordination as something special, I don’t know exactly what they saw in it, but they were happy. For me, that was really amazing. They were genuinely happy for me.”

Even though these experiences do not take the form of deep theological discussion, they are nonetheless a form of interreligious dialogue, the bishop explains. “There are four forms of dialogue: Dialogue of life, theological dialogue, spiritual dialogue, and also social dialogue. In Katsina diocese I would say that what takes place more is the social dialogue of everyday life. Muslims having Christians as neighbours, and coexisting peacefully together. Then you have interaction, for example, whenever we have Christmas celebrations the Muslims will bring us food and clothes to help us celebrate, to share in our joy, and when we have cooked food at Christmas, we share it with our Muslim neighbours. In the same way, when they celebrate Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Kabir, we also share items with them, as a sign of goodwill towards them. Celebrations, ceremonies, marriages, things like my ordination, this is a dialogue of everyday life and activities.”

Bishop Gerald Musa’s personal experience as a bridge between communities does not blind him to the fact that there are difficulties. Among them, is the fact that his diocese is in a state, Katsina, which officially adopted Islamic sharia law several years ago.  The bishop highlighted “that our personal ethics, morals, and spirituality are deeply rooted in our various religions. Nigeria, being a diverse nation, predominantly comprises Christians, Muslims, and practitioners of traditional religions or animists. The previous distinction between a Muslim north and a Christian south is now blurred due to the spread of Christianity in the north and the presence of many Muslims in the south”. He emphasised the necessity of a unified legal system that “incorporates our cultural and religious values for national unity. Although Nigeria has good laws, the challenge lies in their enforcement. Neither sharia nor canon law can be effective if citizens do not respect the civil laws. The prevalence of corruption and inequality stems from a lack of rule of law, allowing individuals to commit serious crimes without consequences.”

Bishop Gerald Mamman Musa of Katsina welcoming guests at the airport
Bishop Gerald Mamman Musa of Katsina welcoming guests at the airport

According to him, people are increasingly drawn to countries where the rule of law is upheld. Currently, religion in many parts of the world has become more of an outward display rather than influencing daily life meaningfully, he said. “Jesus criticized the Pharisees for focusing on minor religious rituals while ignoring essential aspects of faith and morality [Matthew 23:23]. Similarly, in Nigeria, there is a tendency to neglect the crucial elements of the law in favour of superficial religious practices. Despite the religious activities of Christians, Muslims, and followers of traditional religions, corruption and inequality persist because some individuals consider themselves above the law.” The bishop concluded by stressing the need for implementing a common legal framework that promotes the common good, justice, love, peaceful coexistence, integrity, honesty, human dignity and mutual respect, saying that peace cannot exist without justice.

 

By Filipe d’Avillez.
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