01-09-2012 - Traces, n. 8

The Bishop of Jos

The attacks in Boko Haram. The weakness of the institutions. The risk of revenge leads the country into chaos. The President of the Nigerian Bishops, in his speech at the Rimini Meeting, related how his people are suffering true martyrdom, and how it can be avoided. We publish an excerpt, so as not to forget.

by Ignatius Kaigama

Apuzzled lady asked me recently why human beings cannot just enjoy diversity; why one human being should enjoy making others suffer; why one religious, ethnic, political group alienates, marginalizes, demonizes, and visits untold violence on innocent people. It is with the same bewilderment that one would question the rationale behind the aggressive and violent campaign in Nigeria by Boko Haram [the Islamist terrorist organization that is provoking a series of attacks in Nigeria], who have vowed that “Christians will not know peace again” if they do not accept Islam. From their spokesman came a warning that “they will kill government functionaries, security agents, Christians, and anyone who pretends to be a Muslim but goes behind to assist security agents to arrest them. We only kill the unbelievers,” he said. Mallam Abubakar Shekau, referred to by the sect as “Imam,” recently called on Nigeria’s President, Goodluck Jonathan, who is a Christian, to embrace Islam or resign from office. Nigeria was colonized by Britain and gained independence on October 1, 1960. The country is divided into thirty-six states with a population of over 160 million people. Our natural endowments are comparable to none in Africa, yet our poverty rate is alarming due to widespread corruption. The uprising ensued because peaceful and genuine aspirations of people were disregarded over long periods.
The North comprises 19 states in Nigeria, including the Federal Capital Territory. In many of these states, there has been a vicious circle of disaster and pain as suicide bombers invade churches, mosques, and security formations, public and corporate offices. These include the United Nations Building. Among the recent attacks are those in Kaduna and Kano (where the police said they have recovered and defused a total of 963 Improvised Explosive Devices– IEDS–from January 20th to date). The group is well-organized around the goal of a real war in Nigeria, pitting the primarily Muslim North against the historically Christian South.

The Quran in the Atlantic. The majority of Muslims and Christians in northern Nigeria would like to live in peace and be good neighbors, despite the many cases of tension. In the South of the country, but also in the North, you can find both Muslims and Christians within the same family, and there are many mixed marriages. But it’s no secret that some Muslim leaders want to “pour the Quran into the Atlantic Ocean.” In their view, Islam must dominate the country, as demonstrated by the introduction of Sharia Law in some parts of the North. There is nothing to object to about an aspiration that we could define as legitimate: all religions would like to spread and increase the number of their followers. This, however, must be done in a peaceful and civil way, through religious witness.
When I led the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria to visit President Goodluck Jonathan, we registered our displeasure, insisting that criminality and terrorism should not be negotiated even as the government continues to respect the views of ethnic blocs and groups propagating legitimate causes. We alerted President Goodluck Jonathan on the outright denial of access to land to northern Christians and on the revocation of rights of occupancy for land acquired by Churches; denial of Christian religious knowledge in institutions of learning; refusal to broadcast Christian news or programs on national or state media; and refusal to provide land for Christians to build their churches in tertiary institutions in the North where Muslims have built their mosques.
Boko Haram did not accept a Christian as President of Nigeria. This is not a secret, as they stated it publicly. For this reason, we believe that this terrorist group may be manipulated by some political leaders to eliminate the current government. But I am happy that the international community is closely monitoring the situation in Nigeria. The United States Congress held a special session on terrorism and the activities of Boko Haram in Nigeria, attended by the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, and expressed the sentiments that people of all faiths and people of goodwill must demand immediate action against Boko Haram.
My visit to Italy early last month to receive the International Golden Doves Peace Award given by the Institute of International Research (Archivio Disarmo) was a helpful recognition of the increasing need for a more concerted response by the international community. While being received by the Vice President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, Mr. Maurizio Lupi, I was informed that they were sponsoring an online campaign [www.fermiamolastragedeicristiani.it] against the activities of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the need for concerted effort on the part of the international community to ensure religious freedom in Nigeria. He mentioned that the online campaign already has about 30,000 signatures. We need more collaboration not only in the defeat of Boko Haram, but also in tackling transnational crimes like human trafficking, drug trafficking, money laundering, cyber crimes, financial scams, and prostitution.

War and peace. I was appointed Bishop of Jalingo Diocese in 1995. I initiated dialogue and mediated the peace process and encouraged people to live in harmony. It was not easy because, over land ownership disagreements, even Christians kill each other.
I was transferred to Jos in 2000. Barely one year after my installation as Archbishop, Jos witnessed violence of immense proportions. At times, I feel like a social worker, because I try to make peace between people, to offer them help. The government does little, and even the Church has few resources, and tries to use what it has to help the people. I spend whole weekends in the villages with the people to get to know their problems. I try to provide education, health services, and drinking water. Even the young people in Nigeria, especially in Jos, are very frustrated. Recently, they asked me for money for arms to fight the Muslims. They told me, “They are killing us daily. We are tired and we can do nothing. The Muslims come with sophisticated weapons and shoot at us, and at our wives and children.” I replied, “No, Christianity is not about war but peace.” I have served as President of the Christians in Plateau State and there was a moment in which I felt so frustrated that I couldn’t go on. Even the leaders of the other Christian Churches, Pentecostals and Protestants, were pressuring me to find money for arms. At that point, I said that my job was to promote peace and not to fight and kill others. Many saw this as a compromise, and accused me of not defending the Christian faith. How many times have I gone to Muslim homes, eaten with them and made friends! Yet I am still accused of making compromises.
Some days ago, I went to the mosque in Jos. The Muslim youth had invited us to celebrate the end of their feast with them. Many other Church leaders were invited but they refused to go. This is the anger and the frustration that violence has created among us. We even forget the Christian message of love, of reconciliation, of forgiveness, and also of a peaceful and quiet coexistence.
But the battle goes on; we have to go on encouraging the population because the only way to solve the problem is through dialogue. If the Church is attacked, if people are killed, it is difficult to say, “I embrace you, I forgive you.” But it is there that my ministry begins to face the challenges. Even my church was burned; all our vehicles were set on fire. The people wanted me to mobilize our people for a fight. I said, “No, that’s not my mission.” These are the challenges. But I can tell you in my career as a priest and bishop, I have always thought that peace and dialogue are the essential ingredients for civil coexistence. Even though I am alone and have been subjected to attacks on the part of those who should understand, the Grace of the Lord is always with me. Jesus died on the Cross like this, with open arms with which He wants to embrace the whole world, the whole of mankind. He didn’t die with His arms crossed.
This is what will cure us and set us on the right road. This is why we have opened a center for professional formation for Muslims and Christians. They are disadvantaged young people who come from the villages and for two years learn to be electricians and carpenters so as to have a trade in life. They live together for two years, and when they finish their schooling they go home where we hope they can become agents of peace and get involved in dialogue. When we started the school, people told me, “You’re crazy. How can you put Christians and Muslims together free of charge?” Today, the first 22 Muslims and Christians have received their diplomas and have now returned home.

To go on hoping. I always say, “We have been attacked, we have been accused, but hope remains.” I am speaking from the point of view of someone who has experienced personally tremendous acts of terrorism. On March 11th, in Jos, a suicide bomber tried to come into our church, St. Finbarr (which had just been extended and rebuilt), with a car bomb to blow himself up. A 12-year-old boy at the gate stopped him and questioned him. The bomb went off. Though it was a long way from the church, the impact was so powerful that 15 people were killed and the church was destroyed. I met many angry young people and they were ready to fight. They wouldn’t listen to the police and government agents. I saw the burnt body of the bomber and went into the church. It was all destroyed. I knelt down before the sacred images remaining, praying, “God, give me words.” After five minutes, there was silence. I got up and said to them, “I am angry, too, even more than all of you, but if you let irrationality prevail, even more people will be killed. I pray you, in the name of God, go home.” I think the Lord was on my side. These young people went away without protesting, without any more violence. It was a miracle. We go on hoping, but we need your help.

(Notes not reviewed by the author)