The National Conference split over proposal for the scrapping of Pilgrims Welfare Boards.

The National Conference on Tuesday adopted the recommendation of its Committee on Religion asking government to hands off all religious matters, including the sponsorship of pilgrims to Mecca and Jerusalem.

It, however, resolved that religious bodies in the country should be given the mandate to handle all religious matters relating to pilgrimage through the Pilgrims Commissions duly managed by them under a law passed by the National Assembly to regulate their functions and protect pilgrims.

It also agreed that in performing its oversight responsibilities to Nigerians, government should provide normal consular services for the pilgrims through the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the country’s foreign missions.

The Committee, chaired by Felix Ajakaiye and Nurudeen Lemu had recommended that in other to distance government from involvement in religious matters, henceforth, no government, at any level, should use public funds in sponsoring of any religious programme, especially pilgrimages for any category of citizens, including government functionaries.

The Conference also approved other recommendations and amendments. Among them are that businesses of religious bodies should be taxed; hate speeches and sermon should be criminalized; that nobody wishing to convert to any other religion should be victimized and criminalized; that building of worship places should be regulated so that they are far from residential areas and highways; that the National Orientation Agency, NOA, should put in place a strong advocacy in collaboration with traditional institutions to promote the national core values.

Among the amendments rejected by the Conference are that any government official who organises crusade and mass marriages should face impeachment and banned from holding office for 10 years; and that Fridays should be made a work-free day.

It could not however agree on the recommendation of the Committee which called for the establishment of Religious Equity Commission with the statutory mandate of advocacy, enforcement of constitutional religious rights such as freedom of religion, freedom to acquire land for religious purposes, among others.

Although, some of the delegates had said the duties of the proposed Commission were already being performed by the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, the Deputy Chairman of the Conference, Bolaji Akinyemi, who presided over the session deferred decision on the matter till Wednesday after a controversial voice vote was taken on the matter.

The voting session, which had proceeded smoothly, turned rowdy towards the end when a delegate from Kogi State, Olusola Akanmode, brought a motion calling for the scrapping of the Pilgrims Welfare Board.

Mr. Akanmode argued that since the Conference had voted for government to hands off all religious issues, including the sponsoring of Nigerians on pilgrimages, it was logical to scrap the Boards.

The motion was seconded by a delegate from Edo State, Charles Edosomnwan, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN.

A counter motion was however moved by Charles Ibiang and seconded by Saidu Dansadau from Zamfara State.

Mr. Dansadau, a former senator, explained that the boards perform welfare functions for the pilgrims and relate with the Saudi Arabian and Israeli authorities on pilgrimage affairs and should therefore be retained. He was however shouted down by some delegates, who said no! no! no!.

When the matter was put to vote, majority of the delegates voted in favour of scrapping the boards.

The sharp disagreement that greeted the issue was noticeably between some northern Muslims and Southern Christians.

A delegate from Kebbi State and former acting National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Bello Mohammed, amid the confusion demanded for division so that it would be clear which way the voting went. But the delegates shouted no! no! no!.

Some of the delegates, including Mahmud Aliyu, a Civil Society delegate from Edo State were heard shouting at the northern Muslims to accept the result of the voting.

They argued that if the northern Muslims could vote for the taxing of religious institutions and the removal of religious matters from government activities, they should also vote for the scrapping of the Pilgrims Welfare Boards.

Amid the confusion, Mr. Akinyemi announced that the Conference would vote by ballot on the issue on Wednesday and called on a former deputy governor of Osun State, Olusola Obada to move a motion for adjournment. It was seconded by Aisha Aliyu.

The deputy chairman forcefully adjourned the session to avoid the eruption of violence even as many of the delegates kept shouting insisting that they would not vote on the matter again.

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