President Goodluck Jonathan on Monday promised to engage state governors who discriminate based on the religious beliefs of the citizens of their states.
Jonathan spoke while receiving the report of the Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor-led Federal Government delegation to the 2012 Christian Pilgrimage to Holy Land at the Presidential Villa, Abuja.
While saying 16,372 Nigerians took part in the pilgrimage, Oritsejafor had earlier told the President that some state governments from the northern part of the country did not sponsor any pilgrim for the exercise.
He named the affected states to include Jigawa, Kano, Katsina, Sokoto, Zamfara, Benue and Gombe. Though he said some pilgrims from Benue State are currently in the holy land.
Jonathan said although the Federal Government cannot force any state governments to sponsor pilgrims if they do not want to do so, such decision not to sponsor pilgrims must affect both Christian and Muslim pilgrimages and not one alone.
“Government cannot force state governments to sponsor pilgrims if they don’t want to do so. If they decide to pull out from sponsoring pilgrims, there is nothing we can do. But if some state governments are sponsoring pilgrims of one religion and leaving out the other, that is against the law. Nigeria is a secular state and so nobody should be discriminated against based on religious belief,” he said.
The President said he would engage the state governors on the need to ensure that adherents of all religions in their states are treated equally and fairly.
Jonathan lauded the National Christian Pilgrims Commission led by Mr. John Okpara for gaining the confidence of the Italian authorities to the extend that the country now grants visa to intending-pilgrims through the commission, making it unnecessary for pilgrims to personally appear at the Italian Embassy.
“I am pleased to hear that Italian authorities now rely on the commission to issue visa to intending pilgrims. It is a sign of confidence in the commission led by John Okpara and indeed in the country,” he said.
The President said the feat and others recorded by the commission under Okpara’s leadership justified the confidence his administration reposed in him despite that he (the President) was initially hesitant when he wanted to announce the appointment.
He also expressed delight that cases of pilgrims absconding during pilgrimage to holy land has ended, adding that his administration had noted that organisation of the annual exercise was improving with no negative report.
While promising to take part in this year’s pilgrimage, Jonathan said he would use the opportunity of his planned visit to the holy land to engage authorities of the State of Israel on the need for a Bilateral Air Service Agreement between the countries which he believed will make the journey from Nigeria more worthwhile.
He also promised to look into a recommendation that members of the Federal Government delegation be given a two-year tenure as against the current arrangement where members are appointed every year.
He said, “We shall look at your suggestion that the government delegation be given two-year tenure. There is a sense in the suggestion because there will be continuity and memory. Such decision will also help me because I won’t keep appointing people everyday.
“It was for the same reason of continuity and institutional memory that we decided that the Sultan by virtue of his position be the permanent leader of the government delegation for Muslim pilgrimage while the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria leads that of Christian pilgrimage every year.”
Earlier, Oritsejafor said he observed a sharp reduction in the number of Christians who participated in the 2012 pilgrimage when compared to the figure of the previous year.
He recommended the need for the Federal Government delegation for every year to be inaugurated early enough so that members could settle down to work as soon as possible.
While making a case for the signing of BASA between Nigeria and Israel, the CAN president said the step would lead to direct flights between the two countries and reduce travel time from the present nine hours to five hours.
He also encouraged the President to take part in the pilgrimage alongside Christian state governors at least once in a year to afford him the opportunity of knowing the challenges being faced by pilgrims first hand.
The clergyman also suggested that the NCPC should be organising annual awards for states and individuals who sponsor a particular number of pilgrims and pay on time.
The gesture, he added, would encourage the sponsors to do more, therefore increasing the number of pilgrims who would in turn pray for Nigeria in the holy land and return home to be better citizens.
Oritsejafor was accompanied by the Chairman of the NCPC, Most Rev. Nicholas Okoh; the Executive Secretary, Mr. John Okpara; the Chaplain to the President, Ven. Obioma Onwuzuruba; Minister of Water Resources, Mrs. Sarah Ochekpe, and other members of the 11-man Federal Government delegation.