Mr. Jonathan has appealed to state governors to run a secular system in the sponsorship of pilgrims.
President Goodluck Jonathan has charged state governors to avoid religious discrimination in the sponsorship of pilgrims to Muslim and Christian holy lands.
The President gave this charge when he received the report of the Federal Government delegation to the 2012 Christian pilgrimage at the State House, Abuja.
Responding to an observation by the delegation that some states, particularly from the North-West geo-political zone, did not sponsor any Christian pilgrim for the 2012 exercise, the president said that as a secular nation, any state sponsoring pilgrims to holy lands should ensure equity by sponsoring both Christians and Muslims.
He said that though the federal government could not coerce any state into sponsoring pilgrims, the governors have to ensure that every citizen gets treated equally.
“The issue of religion is private so government cannot force states to sponsor pilgrims if they don’t want to. But I will plead with the Governors because we are running a secular country.
“If a State Government decides to pull out from sponsoring pilgrims there is nothing you can do you can only plead,” the president said.
He added that “But if they are sponsoring, may be the southern states sponsoring Christians and not sponsoring Muslims, some Northern states sponsoring Muslims and not sponsoring Christians that is not in line with our laws.
“The country is secular and all the tiers of government, federal, states and local government must be run as secular government to ensure that every citizen of that state has equal rights.”
The president, who promised to participate in this year’s pilgrimage exercise, also said he would seize the opportunity to ensure the signing of a Bilateral Air Service Agreement, BASA, with the State of Israel.
Specifically, Mr. Jonathan said he would engage the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on the need to put the BASA into operation so as to reduce the travelling hours of Nigerians pilgrims.
He commended the Executive Secretary of the , John Kennedy-Okpara, for the improvement the nation had witnessed in the pilgrimage exercise.
The president said he is pleased to hear that the Italian Embassy now relies on information from the pilgrims commission in issuing visa to intending pilgrims; adding that the development would save intending pilgrims the stress of queuing for visa at the embassy.
He also commended the commission’s efforts in ensuring that that Nigeria did not record any negative reports on the activities of the pilgrims.
Earlier, the leader of the 11-member delegation and the President of Christians Association of Nigeria, CAN, Ayo Oritsejafor, said that 16,372 pilgrims performed the pilgrimage in 2012.
He noted that that there was a reduction in the number of pilgrims as compared with that of the 2011 and emphasised on the need for states to sponsor pilgrims.
“Various governments at states level especially those in the North West and South East geo-political zones need to be urged to sponsor more people of Christian faith on pilgrimage to the holy land,” Mr. Oritsejafor said.
He listed some of the states that did not sponsor any pilgrim as Jigawa, Kano, Katsina, Sokoto Zamfara, Benue, and Gombe.
Mr. Oritsejafor also said that bilateral agreement between Nigeria and Israel would aid bilateral relations between both countries and reduce the travel time of pilgrims.
“Currently the journey takes nine hours instead of five hours direct flight to Israel from Nigeria.
“The costs both to human tow and the financial implication will be drastically reduced when that is done and it will also make it easier for indigenous airlines to participate in the airlift of pilgrims,’’ he said.
The delegation recommended that the federal government should provide the necessary support to the pilgrims’ commission to expand the scope of Christian pilgrimage to other biblical holy sites.
It also recommended that the Nigerian embassies in the Vatican and Tel-Aviv be properly funded in order for the missions to serve their roles as pilgrims’ posts; as obtainable in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
The delegation recommended that the president endeavours to make the pilgrimage with some of the Christian governors at least once a year to give the exercise the high level diplomatic flare.
Mr. Oritsejafor was accompanied by the Chairman of the pilgrims’ commission, Nicholas Okoh; the Executive Secretary, John Okpara; the Chaplain to the President, Obioma Onwuzuruba; Minister of Water Resources, Sarah Ochekpe; and other members of the 11-man Federal Government delegation.