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The Challenges of Leading a Catholic Flock in a Muslim Majority Land

Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah

Aid to the Church in Need

Bishop Matthew Kukah

John Burger - published on 04/28/16

Bishop Matthew Kukah says education is the antidote to extremism

Aleteia sat down with Bishop Matthew H. Kukah of Sokoto, Nigeria, April 26 at the Catholic Center at New York University. Sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need, he gave a lecture that evening about the persecution of Christians in his country. In this wide-ranging interview, he talked about the people of his diocese; the challenges he has of giving his flock “greater confidence;” the improving Christian-Muslim relations; how it’s been living with Sharia law (and why it came about), how Boko Haram got its start and how it evolved, the continuing pain of the families of the missing Chibok girls, and the disappointment people have in their new president. He also talked about the way Africans can benefit from Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia; the two-way street of “cultural imperialism,” and the need to form Catholics who going into public service.

Tell me about the people who live in your diocese.

The Catholic population in my diocese is largely businessmen, traders who came from the southern part of Nigeria over a period of time. The Christian population, other Protestant churches, preceded the Catholic Church, and they made quite some inroads into the indigenous peoples. But the Muslim population, we have a few converts among them, but because of the perceived consequences of conversion from Islam to Christianity, some people like to use as much discretion as possible, or they just relocate. The Protestant churches have done far more work in this area than we have.

And have had more success?

Yes,… they were local people, unlike we in the Catholic Church, you had to deal with missionaries, who were foreigners. … The local people, it was much easier for them to integrate, especially with the Muslim population. Perhaps at that time, religious identity had not become so tied to power, to the point where now people know the consequences of, let’s say, deciding not to become a Muslim or to become a Christian. It comes with consequences. Not only could you lose your job, but you could also suffer indirect persecution of not being promoted, for example, your children could end up suffering the consequences. Because in the far north it’s over 90% Muslim. In a lot of those states Christians are not considered to have equal rights with the Muslims. Which explains why you’re not likely to find a Christian in the bureaucracy, in a very prominent position, you’re not likely to find a Christian in the state assembly, you’re not likely to find a Christian in civil government positions and so on.

Is Sharia law in effect there, in your state?

On paper yes. In some states, they say it was declared, it was proclaimed. From the point of view of structures, you have people who have been appointed. They’ve got caste, they’ve got physical structures, as Sharia courts. But hardly anyone goes there. It was a political decision. But most of that has run its course, so it’s not as if you have people now. That’s why it’s lost a lot of the flavor that came with it. For example, the trial of the woman who was said to have been caught in adultery, in 2000, 2001. There was this tension in Nigeria about the implementation of Sharia Law. There was a lot of excitement about it, but it has all petered out because the political elite was not serious about it; it was just for political mobilization.

Secondly, the ordinary people became disillusioned because they thought that since the conventional legal system was not working in their favor, the high cost of getting justice, for example, the occasional chances of poor people becoming victims of injustice, they felt that Sharia law would be one good way to deal with the criminals who were largely what we call in Nigeria the “big men,” the powerful people, people who are in high government positions or who are rich, whom they knew to be corrupt, who were thieves, but the judicial system could not put them in jail because of the amount of influence that they had.

So they thought that the justice system under Sharia law was quite straightforward and was quite easy. But at the end of the day they discovered that it was women and poor people who were being dragged before Sharia courts.

Tell me about some of the greatest challenges you’ve had as the bishop of Sokoto.

For me, the challenge is instilling greater confidence in my congregation. I felt that I had inherited a church that had become almost like a ghetto church or a church of the catacombs—Christians who could be seen but not heard. But luckily for me, because I had a modest level of visibility, when I came to Sokoto I was very well received.

For example, when someone was introducing me at the airport, this Muslim jumps up and says, “Stop introducing him as Catholic bishop of Sokoto, just introduce him as bishop of Sokoto because when you introduce him as Catholic bishop of Sokoto you’re excluding us. He’s our bishop too.”

But the real challenge is the area of education. … If we can build decent schools and keep our children in boarding schools, it would be the best antidote to, one, young girls being married off at the ages of 9, 10, 11, or 12. Because quite a number of them are dropping out of school—not because they don’t want to go to school but because they are forcefully married off. If we have an opportunity of mixing 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.

We do have schools in the diocese but because of the over 50-year-old policy of being denied lands, the result is that almost all our schools are being built on church premises, so it’s difficult for the Muslim children to come to our schools because it will generate anxiety among the parents. So we require help to take the schools out of the church premises so everyone can come. That’s the conversation I’m having with the government.

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. I think it is the best platform to help people appreciate and manage differences well before things get complicated in public life.

You live in a predominantly Muslim area. How are relations between Christians and Muslims?

It’s actually been getting better because we have a generation of political leaders who are much younger, some of them with better exposure, at least in part of my diocese. The governor of Sokoto state was speaker of the federal House of Representatives, so he had a little bit of an idea of how to manage diversity. I think we have a new group of actors who are more amenable to dealing with the problems. I know them; it’s easy for me to pick up my phone and say, “Let’s have a conversation.” A year ago I was able to get the governor and his opponent to sit in a room with over a thousand Christians, to hear out what our problems were and to ask them what they would do if they became governor. May 29 will be the first anniversary. I’m planning to bring them back to the room and say, “Now, what about the issues we raised?”

Boko Haram has put your country in the news these past few years. Does the group enjoy any support among average Nigerians? Are there average Nigerians who agree with their goals and the methods they are using to attain them?

That’s like asking how many Irish people supported the IRA. You might say, ‘Okay, you didn’t mind standing for an independent homeland, but you didn’t agree with the means being employed.

When Boko Haram started [in 2002], the members were members of society, and nobody molested them, and they never molested anybody. This is the part of it that’s often forgotten. The violence was a result of the breakdown in the relationship between the leader of the movement and the governor they helped get to power. The killing of their first leader, Mohammed Yusuf, in the most brutal manner, at a time when social media didn’t help matters, because people could see how these things happen. The guy was asked to take a walk, and he was just shot from behind. He didn’t preach violence. A lot of the things they preached about Sharia were  premised on the assumption that Islam is a superior form of religion, and they are better off living under an Islamic state—which didn’t necessarily question the rights of others, just beyond the fact that they assume that because the rest of Nigeria the political system, the economic system was not working, it was inefficient, it was corrupt. That’s why they had the temptation to say Islam would offer a much better system of government.

They had begun to experiment with very particular security issues. The guy had access to funds—from God knows where—but he was helping very poor people, with as much as $15, $100… So he built a huge support base, based on his ability to meet the basic economic needs of ordinary people.

Later, when the police became violent, they also became violent: by the second year they were ransacking police stations and stealing weapons. To that extent they were not too difficult to contain, that’s why the government was able to arrest so many of them.

The crisis arose after the Americans entered Libya and the subsequent killing of [Muammar] Gaddafi because Gaddafi’s influence in Africa was huge. He had been funding all kinds of organizations for the propagation of Islam. He had been building mosques and handing out money. He had a huge support base. His death was literally the death of a godfather.

So there was that frustration. Ordinary Africans across the continent had found their way to Libya. They were doing all kinds of work, in an environment that was far more accommodating, and Gaddafi presented it as evidence of his own magnanimity. He had quite a number of Africans who were part of the military. So when he died, everything was in freefall.

A lot of those guys moved from Libya with a lot of weapons that finally ended up in Mali, where the French decided to strike. A good part of that, along with a lot of the people, decided to move in and support what Boko Haram was already doing, and from there Boko Haram became more violent. Its criminality increased. They were [kidnapping] Europeans and extorting huge sums of money. The average white man was worth about a million dollars, and the oil companies and construction companies and businesses were paying it, under the table.

Then Boko Haram was robbing banks, they were pillaging the country, they were running drugs, they were doing all kinds of things. At that point it was no longer a question of “We are fighting because we want to create an Islamic state.” That was only a myth because in reality if you’re trying to create an Islamic state you cannot be raping women and killing people and those kinds of things. By the time Boko Haram started out as an Islamic organization and began to kill Muslims and bomb mosques and kill prominent Islamic leaders, it was impossible to sustain the argument that it was an Islamic movement.

But I think that now the irritation of Boko Haram is behind us, more or less, at least the shooting war is literally gone, almost all of the territory that Boko Haram controlled has been taken back, so that territorially Boko Haram doesn’t threaten Nigeria again, but where they have vanished to or what they are planning, nobody knows. Except it depends on what the federal government of Nigeria is doing in collaboration with Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Mali—those are countries that also have substantial Muslim populations. There are reports of Boko Haram coming back and getting back into public life in different guises. What we have now is just the sporadic bomb attacks and so on.

How do you respond to persecution? 

For me as a Christian, if you look at the cross of Christ you know that persecution is literally written into our DNA. 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. 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?”

I’ve been to the Northeast, where Boko Haram has destroyed so much. I’ve been to some of the camps, I’ve seen the bishops right in the frontline of feeding people, without considering whether they are Christians or Muslims. There are Muslims coming every week receiving enough food to feed their families without anyone asking them any questions. 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.

One of the messages I’m pushing is to say that, “Look, there are people out there, secular forces, who actually want to destroy organized religion, whether it’s Islam or Christianity. It’s important that we understand that we have a common enemy.” It’s a conversation people are hearing for the first time,

So we’re hoping that as people become more confident in politics and that as social services continue to improve and the quality of the lives of ordinary people begin to improve that will become the antidote to Boko Haram.

What do you know about the missing Chibok girls?

Only what everybody else knows.

Are you in touch with any of their families? How are they handling this ordeal?

It’s so difficult, but it’s been horribly frustrating for the families. I don’t think the federal government has handled it with the kind of empathy that’s required. I don’t know if it’s because of the social classes of the parents or the powerlessness and the lack of influence. There’s been a lot of misleading reports about what government is doing or not doing. For a long time the parents have felt betrayed. They believe the government could have done much more and shown far greater compassion towards them. The current government used the situation of the Chibok girls as a campaign statement… But the feelings of the parents was that as soon as the new president comes in we will turn the corner and find the girls. That hasn’t happened after almost a year. We’re literally just waiting in prayer. It is impossible to convey the level of pain that the parents of these girls must be going through. We are saddened by the fact that the international community did make the commitment, and when we heard that the Americans were coming we just thought, “All this is over now,” but unfortunately Chibok has become a chess board and the fate of the girls … we don’t know who is doing what and what exactly is happening.

That’s why we were a bit relieved with the video that was released two weeks ago, but I believe the federal government must be involved in some very serious conversations with Boko Haram so that at least we can bring closure to this very ugly phase in the life of our nation.

It’s very difficult to know what to make of the video. At least it shows that they are alive. But these guys are not stupid. They are extraordinarily clever. They probably have run out of money and weapons and so on, and my suspicion is that they might use these girls as, probably they will release them in batches, depending on how much money they can make.

You’re no doubt aware of the Twitter campaign, “#Bringbackourgirls.” Did that make any difference at all?

No, I don’t think so. In fact, at the time it came out we hardly knew what was going on. In Sokoto, for me it was an opportunity because the women who were organizing it are all my friends, and they called me up, and even apart from their call, we organized some things. We had a rosary procession with the BringBackOurGirls banner and so on.

It had its own importance, but very few Nigerians know what is going on on Twitter.

The leader of Boko Haram put out a video making fun of it.

He said, “We have them… Again, that guy, nobody knows whether he is still alive. The problem is even his own identity. Is he who he says he is? But again, these guys are very clever; they thrive on ambiguity and so on. But the good news is that very little has been heard of him. There’ve been allegations that he has since been killed.

Is the change in leadership, with Muhammadu Buhari as president, making a difference in any of these areas of concern?

It ought to have made a difference, but there is so much disillusion in the country. You would not believe it is the same country that celebrated the election of Buhari. He rode on the platform of fighting corruption, and I think his real problem has been strategy. He was president between 1983 until 1985, and within that period he simply assumed that every public official is a thief, so he rounded up all the governors and put everybody in prison, and then they had some show trials in which they asked these guys to pay, sentenced to 100 years in prison, all kinds of phony prison sentences. In fact, I’ve said in an interview that it’s very interesting that the people the president sentenced for 100 years in prison have finished serving their sentences, and some of them are back in the same party as him.

It’s that everybody wants the fight against corruption to be taken seriously, the question is how. The president is almost literally losing a grip on the situation because he has not been able to effectively communicate the strategy that he wants to use to fight corruption. For him—and I’ve spoken with him—he just thinks that the rule of law is a nuisance. It’s almost like he’s still the way he was in 1984: let’s just catch all these guys, try them and put them in prison. If you’re going to use the judicial processes to fight corruption, you know that you’re on a very long road, and a lonely road too, largely because the criminals already have a lot of money, and they will find the best lawyers to frustrate the path that the government wants to take. That’s why after almost one year they haven’t been able to bring anyone seriously to trial, not to speak of conviction. You go to court today and they tell you the lawyer has raised this objection, and you go to court tomorrow, and they raise this objection, about jurisdiction. And so it’s just legal gymnastics. …

That is the frustration of ordinary Nigerians, that this is not what have we signed on for. But I’m personally convinced that his heart and his mind are in the right place. I also believe that Nigeria can and should be able to turn the corner, but I think the president has to do some things slightly different, that is, to change strategy….

He submitted a budget; there’s still a lot of debate about the budget… It has so many implications for people’s welfare and so on. But by the time all this comes on stream we suspect that Nigerians will become very cynical and so on. And then you have all kinds of sporadic outbreaks of violence across the entire country and so forth.

So it’s a very delicate time for Nigeria. And the president has opened up a lot of battles that are really not necessary. It’s almost like he has taken on the Nigerian bar association, the Nigerian judiciary, accusing them of corruption. And yet this is the same judiciary you want to use to fight the war against corruption. There is the perception that the government is not sufficiently open and that he is literally his own man, that he’s on his own. And for a totally corrupt political system, such as the one that has operated in Nigeria, it is not enough to say that you will fight corruption. It is also important to understand that a lot of officials that surround you, and even the money that was used to vote you into power, part of it was corrupt money. So how you  turn around to fight those people successfully that’s the problem. We’re having, for example, some of the key supporters of the president, their names are turning up on the list of names in the Panama Papers. How this will play out nobody knows.

What are your thoughts on this whole global scene where there are so many refugees from the Middle East and Africa going to Europe? What would you say to people who are concerned about jihadists who could be riding this wave and that Islam could establish a beachhead in the West. How should we as Christians respond? What should we be on the lookout for as Islam grows in this country, by immigration and native conversions?

It’s a very difficult question. It’s difficult for me to comment, but I can comment as a Christian. The passion of the Muslim extremists is driven by two forces: the Salafist group feeling that Islam is a superior religion and is the only religion that everybody must subscribe to. Secondly, it’s the way people can see, when they hear that churches are closing and that they’ve been sold to God knows who, it is enough incentive. It’s like the gold rush mentality. If you hear that, if people feel that churches are closing and that there are no people in the churches, why would we not walk toward a hostile takeover? That is, for me, a possibility.

The second point as a Christian is to say, “What is Christianity doing to defend or protect itself against this reality?” I think it’s a question that the bishops of the US and of Europe should think about, because you have a lot of African churches that are growing, outside of the mainstream, in England for example, you have a lot of people who are no longer Catholic but who have now found some kind of energy in the Church. What it means is for the Catholic Church to ask itself, “If the great grandparents who built these churches, breaking their fingers, a hundred or so years ago, if they were to turn in their graves, what would they be thinking, that we suffered and did all this, and this is all our great grandchildren can do is sell it to Muslims or to corporate bodies?” It’s a troubling thought for me that the sacrifice of the people who came to this country and sacrificed for the love of Christ to build all this from nothing, only for us to now decide that a church can become a mosque or hotel tomorrow. I would say to myself—because we must look at what is happening elsewhere—the American government, because of a declining birth rate, says “Let’s offer visas for people to come to America.” They’ve successfully filled some spaces. The churches in America and Europe have not developed a strategy for welcoming African immigrants. So for me, even if it meant if you are going to have 20,000 Arab Muslims here, I would be happy to contemplate seeing, rather than selling a church, would I not find African immigrants somewhere and say “Look, you’re bringing life back to the Church.”

What is going to happen tomorrow we don’t know. When we are exposed to Western culture and Western civilization, with its roots in Christianity, the love that Christianity expounds, perhaps they may come into contact with our own culture, but we have to be prepared to market those values. Perhaps those values might lead to conversions, but I doubt that they’re going to lead to any astronomical conversions as such.

Shakespeare said, “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” How can you tell which one’s real and which one’s not real? Only the future can tell. It’s a gamble. I don’t understand how it is that these guys can be fleeing from their own country, and until today nobody has said anything about how many people is Saudi Arabia taking? How many people are the United Arab Emirates taking? How many people are going to Iran? I don’t understand it. If they are Muslim they should be more comfortable in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis say, “You move to wherever you move to, and we’ll provide the money for the building of the mosques.” So if you are closing your churches, you are an accomplice, indirectly.

Before wrapping up, I’d like to ask you about the view from Rome. Do you think the Synod of Bishops, which spent two years discussing issues pertaining to the family, have heard the concerns of the African Church, and will Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia speak to the African family?

The African family has its own crisis, and the crisis is of a slightly different nature. There are crises rising from the economic, cultural challenges that communities are facing in the face of modernization and so on. But for now, the substantial text of Amoris Laetitia speaks to the African situation, especially as its focus is on love and family. We still cherish family, but we shouldn’t be under any illusion that we have a system that is perfect. It isn’t. … Yes, there are corrosive influences from Western culture, but it’s a bit hypocritical because, despite the so-called attacks we have on African culture, the average African elite is struggling to steal or borrow to send their children to America to study.

So far, the things the Holy Father has spoken about validates some of the things African takes seriously.

And Pope Francis has certainly spoken about cultural imperialism, and that affects African nations.

I agree with that argument. But imperialists can only succeed with the collaboration of the citizens. I really don’t want us to assume that we’re just innocent and that the West is just walking all over us and that everything about the imperialists is really wrong. Because in a country like Nigeria, what the imperialists left behind is what we are still looking at. Over 50 years later our own elites have not improved on, whether it’s the railways or the networks of roads or so forth.

There’s little we can do in the face of globalization. All we can do is so prepare ourselves and our children to be able to confront the reality. We have a saying in Nigeria that “if you see your brothers beard on fire, it’s good to put water on your own beard.” If we can see what has happened to the Church in the West, the question is not so much to stand in self-righteousness… How do we ensure that it doesn’t suffer the same fate in our hands? We have the right to chose. The choices we make are really important.

But isn’t it true that Western powers sometimes hold out a very attractive deal in foreign aid if you accept population control programs?

Absolutely. But what that also means is that we need to plug the loopholes where people are most vulnerable. 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. Because if we’re knowledgeable about it, it will affect the amount of energy we will commit to it. 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. There’s hardly anything anyone can do now about globalization.  The West will continue to hand over goodies. But it is not handing them over to individuals; it is handing them to governments, so that means that the Catholic Church must decide how it wishes to participate in public life. That means that the quality of people who are representing us in government, it’s important to be interested in the moral quality of people who are represent us in government, because if we are then they will not sign on to those agendas. Then they will stand back and say “No, we don’t want this at all costs.” But if we allow corruption to thrive and our people don’t know what choices to make, they will be more than happy to collect all these things in exchange for the kind of favors that are immediately available to them.

I have a center [in Abuja, the capital] where we’re trying to see how we can prepare people in public life. I wrote a piece for Crux on Pope John Paul II and Africa. We Africans have not appreciated John Paul II enough for what he did for us in Africa. The sheer number of people he canonized, was unprecedented. The sheer number of cardinals he created, the number of archbishops. When I became secretary general of the Nigerian Bishops Conference in 1990, there were 38 ecclesiastical jurisdictions. Now there are 52. In Ecclesia in Africa, he pointed Africa in the direction of how the Church can engage the state. More or less, he said “See what I did in Poland. You can make the Church a force for serious political change.”

John Burgeris news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

AfricaBoko HaramIslamist MilitantsNigeria
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