Michael Gerson

Both the sultan and the archbishop blame broad social challenges for Nigeria's tinderbox atmosphere -- frustration with government, poverty in the midst of plenty, even the unreliable electrical grid. But they also see what the sultan calls a "religious intensification" -- Pentecostals, gathered in camp meetings of hundreds of thousands, predicting the end times; Wahhabi Muslim influence from the Middle East; the advent of the Nigerian Taliban, imported, the leaders argue, from places such as Chad and Niger.

What is the long-term response to these religious tensions? Both leaders are dismissive of yet more interfaith "dialogue" (though they practice it well). "Discussion clarifies our differences, and we already know what those are," says the archbishop. Instead they are proposing the ecumenism of action -- building confidence and trust between their communities by cooperating against a common enemy.

The enemy they have chosen is anopheles gambiae -- the most dangerous malaria-carrying mosquito. Malaria is challenging for adults -- the archbishop describes his "twice-a-year appointment with malaria, when I lay in bed for three days" -- but the disease is often deadly for children, who have not yet developed immunity. And the mosquito makes no distinction between Muslim children and Christian children.

Nigeria has about a quarter of all the malaria cases in Africa. It is also beginning -- with the help of the World Bank, the Global Fund and the President's Malaria Initiative -- an effort to fight the disease, involving the distribution of more than 60 million insecticide-treated bed nets to 30 million families over the next 18 months. The scale of this effort is both vast and necessary. When about 70 percent of the households in a village use the nets, the entire village gains a halo of protection.

But reaching these goals in Nigeria is improbable without the active cooperation of mosques and churches. Houses of worship are distribution points where no clinic exists. And the effective, consistent use of bed nets requires education -- a perfect role for local, trusted religious leaders. So the sultan and the archbishop have launched an organization, the Nigeria Interfaith Action Association, to coordinate their efforts against malaria -- a plank across the Muslim-Christian divide.

It is true that religion can contribute to conflict, as thousands of dead Nigerians attest. But faith can also be a source of health -- as the sultan and the archbishop intend, and as hundreds of thousands of Nigerian children may live to witness.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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