Bishop Matthew Kukah says "If you are closing your churches, you are an accomplice."
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Now is the time for Christians to prepare for significant Islamic growth in America, says the leader of a small Catholic community in an area of Nigeria that is 80-90 percent Muslim.
As someone who leads a minority flock that is striving to coexist with a Muslim majority, Bishop Matthew Kukah has both cautionary and hopeful advice for Christians in the West. In an interview and a talk in New York City this week, the 63-year-old bishop spoke of continuing discrimination against Christians in Nigeria, as well as the radicalization of Muslims in movements such as Boko Haram.
Asked for his thoughts about the mostly Muslim flood of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and parts of Africa, as well as concerns about the U.S. government plans to take 10,000 or more refugees from Syria, Bishop Kukah said it was difficult to say what the outcome may be. And while it’s difficult to compare the dynamics in vastly different areas of the world, each with its own history and culture, the West might look to Nigeria’s experience for a few lessons.
Bishop Kukah, who has been bishop of the Sokoto Diocese since 2011, has been on a speaking tour of Boston, New York and Washington, sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need. Speaking at the Catholic Center at New York University Tuesday, he said the suffering of Christians in Nigeria is not a result of a religious conflict but of a conflict over power. “The challenge is how to create an egalitarian society in which the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and in which ordinary citizens enjoy their rights without any discrimination,” he said in prepared remarks.
In a nearly hour-long interview with Aleteia, Bishop Kukah said that Muslim extremists are driven by the Salafist ideology that believes that “Islam is a superior religion and is the only religion that everybody must subscribe to.”
“When they hear that churches are closing [in the West] and that they’ve been sold to God knows who, it is enough incentive,” he said. “It’s like the gold rush mentality. Why would they not work toward a hostile takeover?”
“If you are closing your churches, you are an accomplice, indirectly,” he added.
He suggested that the bishops of the U.S. and Europe encourage the burgeoning African Christian communities in their midst, and facilitate their use of now largely empty churches, rather than throw in the towel and sell off those properties.
“The churches in America and Europe have not developed a strategy for welcoming African immigrants,” he charged.
At the same time Christians should be encouraged that Muslim immigrants will be exposed to Western culture and Western civilization, “with their roots in Christianity, the love that Christianity expounds,” Bishop Kukah said. He knows firsthand that Christian witness can change hearts.
“It’s not that we’re inviting persecution, but we remain a people of hope, and I have tried to explain to my flock that no matter the provocation the Gospel of Jesus Christ must always be held high in front of us,” he said. “What is very interesting is to watch how Muslims have come to see Christianity. A good number of people are wondering, How is it, with all the terrible things that have been done to Christians, they’ve never had to rise up? It’s not because we are numerically weak; in places where Muslims are numerically weak, it has not stopped them from being violent. But I’ve seen people wonder, How is it that this religion continues to bear suffering?”
In the northeast of Nigeria, where Boko Haram has left a trail of death and destruction, Bishop Kukah said he has seen bishops “right in the frontline of feeding people” in refugee camps, “without considering whether they are Christians or Muslims. … Many of these Muslims are coming into contact with Christianity and the love of Christ for the very first time. I believe that 80%-90% of ordinary Muslims in Nigeria just want to be left alone, just like the rest of us. I don’t believe Muslims are plotting and thinking about how to destroy Christianity. I think that we have a fringe group of people within Christianity and within Islam who are exploiting the economic environment we are living in, who are exploiting the inefficiency of government and who have become vulnerable to violence as an alternative to living much more meaningful lives. That’s why I hope that going forward, beyond the persecution, we have opportunities for another level of dialogue because the Muslims who have experienced violence are coming to terms that we need to stand together.”
Why? Because both religions face a greater threat.
“One of the messages I’m pushing is to say that there are people out there, secular forces, who actually want to destroy organized religion, whether it’s Islam or Christianity,” the bishop said. “It’s important that we understand that we have a common enemy. It’s a conversation people are hearing for the first time.”
“A lot of problems that we’re having, even in the face of Islamic fundamentalism, is on account of the fact that we have become so laid back and we’re not so enthusiastic or knowledgeable about our faith,” he said, in response to a question about what Pope Francis calls “cultural imperialism.”
“A lot of the choices people have to make now are informed by the culture or larger society, not their faith. The real challenge is how much training our children and our people are getting in terms of what it means to be Catholic. If you provide your children with enough cultural ammo they will survive. But if we simply continue to talk about the threat of Islam, the threat of globalization, without preparing ourselves to be able to contend with these forces, then we will be victims.”
If the Church were more interested in the formation of people who will some day be involved in government, “they will not sign onto those [cultural imperialist] agendas. Then they will stand back and say, ‘No, we don’t want this at all costs.’”
Bishop Kukah is chairman of the Kukah Center in Abuja, the capital, which is dedicated to preparing people for public life. Looming large above its work is a pope who made many visits to Africa, St. John Paul II.
“In Ecclesia in Africa, [Pope John Paul II] pointed Africa in the direction of how the Church can engage the state,” Bishop Kukah said. “More or less, he said, ‘See what I did in Poland. You can make the Church a force for serious political change.’”
And even before the point where a Nigerian might study at such a center, basic education is of vital importance, and Bishop Kukah knows that. “If we can build decent schools and keep our children in boarding schools, it would be the best antidote to, number one, young girls being married off at the ages of nine, 10, 11 or 12, because a quite a number of them are dropping out of school, and number two, if we have an opportunity to mix children from different social backgrounds and faiths it will increase their willingness to stay in school but also to get to know about what is happening and what the opportunities are for young people for the future,” he said. “Education is one of the best apostolates we can engage in because of the long history of the Catholic Church in education, because of the quality of education we offer and also the values we hold dear.
“And finally, I think it is the best platform to help people appreciate and manage differences well before things get complicated in public life.”
In his lecture, the bishop said that the Catholic Church must become more assertive in propagating values and virtues as such as service to the common good, the promotion of justice, and the protection of human rights. “We must rally Christians around common projects that address our common humanity. The Church must become the focus and rallying point for civil society’s promotion of democracy and struggle for good governance.”
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.