A few weeks ago, the Catholic Bishop of Ekiti Diocese, Felix Ajakaye, urged government to stop spending money to sponsor people for pilgrimages. This is a position I have consistently maintained over the years. And so, when I found a religious leader share the same view, I quickly aligned my views with his and agreed with his argument that religion is a personal and private matter for each citizen, and the state should stay away from it.
It is good that the Committee on Religion at the on-going national conference, co-chaired by Ajakaye and Nurudeen Lemu, has proposed government’s withdrawal from pilgrimage sponsorship. The committee’s report was up for debate this past week at the confab. Happily, the plenary of the confab accepted the recommendation. What I cannot understand, however, is the contention against the suggestion to scrap pilgrim welfare boards and commissions across the country, that being a natural consequence of government’s discontinuation of sponsorship. It was on that note the conference broke off last Tuesday and hopefully will consider it again in this new week and do the needful.
Religion, no doubt, is a very passionate issue in Nigeria, and discussions around it often make adherents of concerned faiths go sentimental and giddy. I expect this proposition to bring that out in citizens. But truth be told, we cannot continue to spend public funds whimsically in funding usually privileged citizens or their cronies for what is at best ‘religious tourism’. All those talks about supporting pilgrims to go to ‘holy lands’ to pray for the peace and progress of the country are mere appeal to sentiments and take advantage of citizen’s, sometimes mistaken, passion about their faiths.
What is pilgrimage all about anyway? It is a journey to certain places of importance to one’s faith and meant to strengthen such faith or belief. There is no compulsion to do them. In fact, there is no evidence that someone who has gone on pilgrimage becomes a better adherent, more pious, less corrupt or a better human being than those who have not. Even in the faiths that urge adherents to go on pilgrimage, they are only required to do so if they can afford it. Relying on government sponsorship, therefore, is enough to show that the person cannot afford and should stand disqualified.
Clearly, this pilgrimage thing has become an elitist culture and status symbol. Little wonder, therefore, that Nigerians have coined for themselves titles and descriptions depicting their supposed exalted religiosity as a result of accomplishing a trip. So now we have so many ‘alhaji’ and ‘alhaja’ honorific among Nigerians than you have among citizens of countries with many more Muslims such as Malaysia and Indonesia. We also have a growing band of Christians who pride themselves with the suffix of ‘JP’ by which they mean ‘Jerusalem Pilgrim’ – and I often wonder why they don’t also have Rome Pilgrim (RP) and Athens Pilgrim (AP), since they also visit those places in the name of pilgrimage. With all these Nigerian-coined JPs, the universally-recognised description of JP (justice of the peace) is being diminished in Nigeria. I equally wonder why it doesn’t prick the highly religious consciences of some of these people that their assumed statuses are products of stolen funds, abuse of public office or trust or are attained on account of corrupt appropriation, misappropriation or misuse of public funds.
Yet the fact that the funds belong to ‘the public’ is enough attraction for many Nigerians to seek ways of benefiting from this freebie. This explains why citizens whose faith do not even demand or advice on pilgrimage as a cardinal act of faith still insist on making an event out of this, just to benefit from the freebies and thereby attain religious ‘equality’ too.
With such a setting, those in the famed ‘corridors of power’ have also devised corrupt schemes for creaming off our common wealth to sustain this folly of state-sponsored pilgrimage. They also use it to oil their wheels of political patronage and even compromise some clerics and other opinion leaders.
Nigeria is a multi-cultural and multi-religious state. There is freedom of worship. That means, there is no limit to the number of religions that can be practised or adhered to by citizens. To be sure, Nigerians are free to choose widely and outside Christianity, Islam and what is often erroneously called ‘traditional religion’.
For the state to guarantee freedom of worship, it must not only allow citizens to freely exercise such freedoms. But it must not go to the extent of assisting some of them to exercise such freedoms. If the state is involved in Christian and Muslim pilgrimages, how does it justify failure to get involved in the pilgrimages of other religious groups? Even among the Christian and Muslim communities, some denominations and sects are involved in other or different pilgrimages to the birthplace or headquarters of their groups, even here in Nigeria, how come the state doesn’t get involved in sponsoring or supporting pilgrims to those places?