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Nigerian archbishop outlines challenges for Christians facing Boko Haram

IGNATIUS AYAU KAIGAMA
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Newly reelected president Buhari can do more to redirect youth away from extremism, prelate says.

While the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria may be almost totally defeated militarily, it might be undergoing a reincarnation in Nigeria.

According to a Nigerian bishop speaking at the United Nations, the terror group Boko Haram is evolving into the Islamic State of West Africa Province and seems to be directed remotely by ISIS itself.

Archbishop Ignatius A. Kaigama of the Archdiocese of Jos, Nigeria, spoke at a March 1 conference titled “International Religious Freedom: A New Era for Advocacy in Response to a New Age of Challenges and Threats,” hosted by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the UN together with the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief. The archbishop shared the dais with Samuel Brownback, the US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom; Thomas Farr, President of the Religious Freedom Institute, and Hajnalka Juhász, Ministerial Commissioner and Member of the National Assembly of Hungary.

The archbishop, former president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference, began his remarks with a personal anecdote that brought home the fact that Boko Haram is still very active.

“During my flight from Abuja to Paris before connecting here to New York, I briefly met a priest of Maiduguri diocese, Nigeria, who told me that he was returning from the funeral of his father who was killed recently in Nigeria by the fanatical Islamic group, Boko Haram,” Archbishop Kaigama said.

He explained that Boko Haram was founded in 2002 and became a militant group after the extrajudicial murder of their leader, Yusuf Mohammed, in 2009.

“Boko Haram’s desire to reintroduce historic Islamic dominance, especially in Northern Nigeria and beyond, has led them to commit all sorts of atrocities. At first it was exclusively against Christians, but now it is also against Muslims who do not share Boko Haram’s ideology,” he said.

The terror group has killed more than 28,000 people and has caused more than 3.8 million to be internally displaced, the archbishop said. They are known to bomb places of worship while people are at prayer. A March 11, 2012, attack on St. Finbar Church in the Archdiocese of Jos killed 14 people, for instance.

Archbishop Kaigama said that the escalation of religious bigotry and hatred in Nigeria are the consequences of Boko Haram’s activities. When religion comes up in discussion, people know that saying the “wrong thing” can lead to a major dispute and even violence.

More recently, a problem has arisen that also involves violence between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria: the ongoing dispute between Fulani herdsmen and farmers. But, Archbishop Kaigama explained, the reason for the violence has more to do with economics and resentment over land than religious persecution.

“The impact of climatic change on the Sahelian region, a home to many nomads, has made it very difficult to feed their cattle. Drought and deforestation have fueled conflicts with farmers,” he said. “Eventually such conflicts take on a religious mask, because the herdsmen are generally Muslims and the farmers are mostly Christians.”

As an example of the violence, he said that last April, two priests and 17 lay persons were killed during morning Mass in Benue State. “The Mass had just started at 5:30 a.m. when they were gunned down in cold blood,” recounted the archbishop. “The gunmen then proceeded to raid the barns of those in the vicinity of the Church and then burn down 60 houses before fleeing from the scene. They were never apprehended. They are just referred to us ‘unknown gunmen.’”

In an interview on Monday, facilitated by Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop Kaigama emphasized that such attacks are not fundamentally religiously motivated. “If two groups are involved and one is Christian and the other is Muslim, the media and even onlookers will say It is a Christian-Muslim thing. I don’t deny that there are religious motives. I don’t deny that people would want dominance … but it is not all about religion; there is also the economic reality we have to consider,” he said.

He said that it doesn’t help when news media report such outbursts of violence as religiously motivated.

In his United Nations presentation, the archbishop said that in Southern Nigeria, relations between Muslims and Christians are fairly normal. Christians and Muslims live together peacefully, intermarry, and celebrate feasts together. One can convert from Islam to Christianity and vice versa without any threats to one’s life.

Things are different in the north. In Gombe State, for example, there is a significant Christian minority that is growing in both population and influence. But the Muslim majority is adopting measures aimed at checking the growth of the Christian minority as well as stopping them from occupying key positions in politics and in the civil service. “In states like Gombe and Bauchi, Christians are tolerated but all it takes is a false accusation for them to be violently attacked,” he said.

The archbishop listed several examples of poor treatment of Christians in the north, including:

  • In some Muslim-majority states, Islamic religious knowledge is included in the curriculum of primary and secondary schools while the teaching of Christian religious knowledge is prohibited.
  • In many Muslim-majority societies in northern Nigeria, Christians are denied permits to build churches while Muslims can build mosques anywhere.
  • Christians born in Muslim-majority states complain about being denied employment or promotion in the civil service on account of their faith.

The Catholic Church is trying to help address some religious liberty issues. Archbishop Kaigama founded the Dialogue Reconciliation and Peace Center in Jos, and he hopes the government will adapt its model. It is, he said in an interview, a “safe space, open to everyone, no matter your religion and ethnicity and age. You come there, and you know that you are safe, and everybody’s equal.

“In interfaith dialogue, we need to talk sincerely,” he continued. “Not these kinds of meetings between Christian leaders and Muslim leaders where we just exchange pleasantries and we are so nice to each other and then we go back and things don’t change. No, we need honest, sincere discussions that will take specific actions.”

At the UN, he also called on the newly reelected president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, to do more to “help detoxify the mind of youths poisoned by religious prejudices and indoctrination so that they can engage others as fellow human beings with respect.” In the interview, he said he felt that Buhari could keep encouraging youth to be positive and do something concretely to improve their economic prospects.

“There isn’t social security for them. You find those who have graduated from university all over the place. They’re idle and therefore very susceptible to manipulation by political bigots, by religious bigots and ethnic extremists,” the archbishop said. “This is the hope of Nigeria, the future of Nigeria. If he can give very serious attention to the needs of the youth … and make them relevant, give them something to do as their contribution to the nation, I think it would help to detoxify and also remove that negative poison of politics, religious or ethnic [extremism] injected into them.”

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