THREATS TO THE CHRISTIAN FAITH IN CONTEMPORARY NIGERIA
(Keynote Address by Matthew Hassan KUKAH, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, at a One Day Conference of the Catholic Men’s Guild, Archdiocese of Lagos, held at MUSON Centre, on June 16th, 2018)
Christianity lies in achieving greatness in the face of a world’s hatred…
St Ignatius of Antioch
You have asked me to speak on what you refer to as threats to the Christian faith in contemporary Nigeria. I do not wish to assume that we are all on the same page as to intentions, focus and conclusions on this theme that you have chosen. Or are we to assume that the topics and sub themes that you have listed on today’s programme constitute some of these threats already identified? If that is the case, then, given the caliber of speakers that you have assembled, we can assume that my assignment has been made rather redundant.
In fact, in your letter of invitation you have already identified the following as threats to Christianity in contemporary Nigeria: The Nigerian Constitution, Insecurity, Corruption, Unemployment, Social Media and the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN.
I do not wish to anticipate the speakers and what they will be saying because I know that on these themes, there are as many views as there are speakers with different backgrounds and expertise. I understand my role to be merely that of painting some broad strokes across the canvas and believing that the speakers will do justice to the topics.
In this keynote intervention, I will do three things. Firstly, I will speak of persecution as one that has always been part of the life of Christians. Secondly, I will examine the reality of persecution in Nigeria and refer to our own complicity in it, with particular reference to the separation of religion from our public endeavors and to the lack of solidarity among us as a nation. Thirdly and by way of conclusion, I will suggest that overcoming the persecution of Christians in Nigeria requires primarily that we ignite the fire of our Christian calling.
The Christian Faith: Persecution in our DNA
This is not the place to delve into the issues surrounding the historical development of Christianity in Nigeria. However, I think that the organizers of the Conference should have provided for a speaker on the history of Christianity as this would have provided a context for our better understanding and appreciation of the crises that we are in today. Since to be the subject of persecution is in the DNA of the Christian faith and the Christian community, there must and should be a reason.
From its inception, Christianity has been a persecuted religion. Then as now, it would seem true to say that persecution is a measure of faithfulness to the gospel and teachings of Jesus Christ. Thus, if Christians are not being persecuted, it may mean that they should look at whether and how they are practicing the faith and being faithful to Jesus!
It is helpful to start from the beginning, namely, from the mission statement of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Recall that He summed up His mission and vision in the following words: The spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has sent me to preach the good news to the poor, to bring liberty to captives, to give sight to the blind and to preach the Lord’s year of favour (Lk. 4:18). He told His disciples that they were to expect persecution because; If the world hates you, remember it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own (Jn.15: 18).
Persecution can take many different forms. There is of course the very obvious and painful one of physical harm, torture, imprisonment, death or destruction of properties and livelihoods. Persecution can also be more subtle but in a sense equally painful and destructive, where it is rejected and ridiculed in the political and public space, in both academic and civil society discourse.
Today, the theme of persecution of Christians has resurfaced with a great sense of urgency and intensity around the world. Here, we are not talking of hostile environments like in some parts of Asia and indeed in some localities in our own country, but in many cases, right in the heart of countries and regions that have a historical Christian heritage. We are not speaking here of the persecutors of Christians being outsiders, the traditional enemies of the Christian faith, but internal agencies within the Christian community itself and in states that are nominally Christian.
Persecution in Nigeria: our own complicity
Regards the claim that there are flaws in the Nigerian Constitution that constitute or open the way for the persecution of Christians, we must remember that this country has had Constitutional Drafting and Constitutional Reviewing Committees. Have the Chairpersons of these not always all been Christians? Have Christians not been part of the entire process? Of course they have! The unfortunate truth is that Christians in Nigeria have never been able to define a role for themselves in public life. Instead our energies have focused on protecting our regional or ethnic groups, with our Christian identity trailing behind.
Thus, in opening up this topic for discussion and reflection, we should use the opportunity to look back and examine the history of our country, the times when Christians were at the centre of public life. What did we do to become a vulnerable group as we are today? We have to answer, for example, how it is that the Church lost our schools to a criminal state and yet we are unclear about whether or not they should be given back? How did it happen that despite the provisions guaranteeing religious liberty we have been unable to stand together in solidarity to either legally or politically challenge these infringements that have now come to haunt Christians in so many parts of our country? So, reflecting on today’s topic should be an opportunity for us to look back, admit our sins of omission and ask whether we may have inadvertently created the conditions for what we have come to refer to as the persecution of Christians in our country.
It is important that we rethink the notion of persecution within the society in which we live and that we appreciate the complex manifestations of persecutions in our society. When looking at persecutions, there is need to address its agency, namely, who does the persecution, when, where and how?
Whenever we talk about the persecution of Christians, our minds go to the killings, the burning of churches, the denials of promotion in the public service to Christians, lack of access to lands for the building of churches and so on. These are violations of human rights and it is in that context that they should they be addressed. We lament over such aspects of persecution as the takeover of schools and the non-inclusion of Christians in the bureaucracy and public life in the northern states, but we will not resolve these by merely complaining about them.
Rather we must take them up as human rights issues. Instead of merely hoping that things will change one day when, for example, a Christian becomes Governor or President, we need to awaken a culture that encourages Nigerians to approach the courts for justice. In which case, what we call persecution must be addressed within the larger context of a range of other violations in our society.
An essential question we need to address is why do these persecutions continue today? Let us remember that when we speak of persecution, we are talking about a powerful state, or individual or group, exercising power negatively on a weaker person or institution. In our own case therefore, when we talk of the persecution of Christians in Nigeria, are we not really indicting ourselves? For, how could we be talking of persecution with all the resources that we as Christians have at our disposal? We have a huge number of Christians in public life, we have economic resources, we have the educated manpower in the bureaucracy, so what is the problem? It is inaction.
To answer this question is to further speak to the lack of clear solidarity and sensitivity that exists in our Churches across the country. In the big cities where wealth generates and creates its own dynamic, we find that we become so comfortable that we become insulated against the trials that persecution produces elsewhere. Our silence, our lack of concern, our obsession with our own comfort and protection create the necessary conditions for the persecution, thus making us complicit in our own suffering. Sadly, I must say that in the last few years we have experienced this in the North of Nigeria with many of our communities destroyed and so many of our rights infringed upon and yet we receive so few visits or concrete shows of solidarity from Catholics in other parts of the country. I have experienced a lethargy among our Catholics in relation to the problems of the last few years that is staggering and embarrassing. We have received more concern and assistance from people who have no idea where we live than from those who are near to us. This is what creates the conditions for persecution, the feeling that you have no one and no one cares enough.
Today, the blood of ethnicity is the defining identity in Nigeria. Hence, when riots break out in northern cities, I often hear my Igbo friends say they are killing Igbos in the north, rather than that they are killing Christians. In the public service, are we not more likely to stand in solidarity with someone who is being victimized because they are from our tribe than the fact that they are from our Church? A big factor in overcoming religious persecution in our country will be when our Christian identity trumps our other identities.
On the Relationship of Religion and State
The late Rev. Fr. Richard Neuhaus, an American Presbyterian who converted to Catholicism, published a book called The Naked Public Square. His argument essentially was that those who canvass for the total separation of Church and state, religion and politics, run the risk of leaving the public square naked, bereft of spiritual values. Other scholars like the former White House Nixon aide, Charles Coulson who went to jail after Watergate but is now a religious minister specializing in the prison ministry, and Professor Mary Glendon of Harvard University, among many others further took up the theme. It later became a topic of much debate within Christian public intellectual circles in business and politics in the United States of America.
Essentially, the argument of the naked public square can be summed up as follows: How people behave in public life depends on the sources of their morality. Thus, there are as we know, competing moral claims because of the cultural and social diversities of our societies. The challenge is how to ensure that our view of morality becomes the dominant ethos in the larger society. To suggest that religion should be divorced from public life and that secularism is an option is to create the possibility of moral relativity. The argument therefore concludes that Christians have a duty and a responsibility to ensure that the impact of their morality resonates in the larger society.
Therefore, if today we are talking about insecurity, immorality, corruption and so on in Nigeria, it is clear evidence that we as Christians have left our public square bereft and naked of Christian morality and those with a negative morality have dressed up the naked space. Again, let us note that among those with the negativemorality are many nominal ‘Christians’.
It is time for the Catholic Church to wake up from its very serious slumber in matters of its impact in public life. Despite our huge numbers, institutions and expertise, we have not created a niche for ourselves in public life. We are not present in Nigeria’s political space as a unit. Catholics are influential in all the Banks and businesses, but we have not found a way of using them well or developing a deep Christian banking ethos. Our schools were taken over and all we have done in the last forty years is throw up our hands and lament. We have men and women in high office across every strata of our society, but we have no impact as a faith community.
Persecution versus Solidarity
I believe that persecution can thrive due to a lack of solidarity among Christians locally and globally. Similarly, where Christians stand together in solidarity, they can achieve much as the body of Christ. This solidarity is being expressed today in Nigeria primarily by external agencies. I have participated in some of these initiatives and I will draw attention to a few that are quite prominent and which we can use to think through strategies and options in our Nigerian context.
There is an organization called Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). Its headquarters are in Konigstein in Germany but it has cells and volunteers across Europe and America, many of which I myself have visited. Their members go around the world raising funds and calling attention to the persecution that Christians face. ACN is solely dedicated to calling attention to and supporting Christian communities that are suffering persecution around the world. It is doing great work in Nigeria and is well known to many of our bishops. It is perhaps the only organization that is dedicated to directly supporting Catholics who are under threat. On its website it says that: it is an international pastoral aid organization of the Catholic Church, which yearly offers financial support to more than 5,000 projects worldwide.
At their invitation, I have delivered lectures in Germany, England and the United States. Last year alone, I spoke in Manchester, Lancaster, Liverpool and London. The year before, I was in the United States and spoke in Boston, New York and Washington. Their audiences are often varied and the engagements cover lectures, media and other direct Church audiences. Their donors cut across different social classes. They have thousands of volunteers who work for them.
For example, Aid to the Church in Need has helped tremendously in the rebuilding and reconstruction of many Churches, parish houses, Convents, schools, among others. In Sokoto Diocese for example, they assist us in the training of some of our Seminarians, they have built a Parish house for one of our new parishes and renovated a few of our Churches. With their help, we have completed a new Pastoral Centre in the Malumfashi area of Katsina State which will serve as a retreat Centre as well as a place for Catechesis and the deepening of Catholic doctrine among our people. Without their aid, the story of our Diocese and many of the Dioceses in the northern states would be completely different today, especially places like Maiduguri, Yola and Jalingo Diocese which are in the epicentre of Boko Haram.
Missio and Misereor, other agencies of the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference, preceded Aid to the Church In Need and have done tremendous work in literally every Diocese in Nigeria. But I make more reference to Aid to the Church In Need because of their declared commitment to, as they themselves say, those places where the Church Weeps!
Open Doors International is another international faith organization that is keenly concerned about the persecution of Christians around the world. In their website, they also state that they are; a non-denominational mission supporting persecuted Christians in over 60 countries where they consider Christianity to be socially or legally discouraged or oppressed. They have conducted one of the best and exhaustive researches on the persecution of Christians in northern Nigeria. That report was issued in 2017 and it is available on their website. The report extensively documents the nature and scope of the persecution of Christians in northern Nigeria and provides an analytical basis for understanding persecution, what drives it and why it persists in the northern states of Nigeria. Without this understanding by people who live outside the region, it will be impossible for us to speak in solidarity about our situation.
The University of Notre Dame has been conducting research on the theme of the persecution of Christians for some years now. In 2013, I had the honour of participating and speaking in a Conference in which they unveiled their findings based on many years of research. In a project called, Under Caesar’s Sword, they have partnered with the Kukah Centre to host a round table discussion in Abuja where we sought to address the issues of the resilience of the Christian leaders in the North-East in the wake of Boko Haram.
While there is great solidarity to be found internationally, unfortunately we cannot say that the same is evident here in our own country. For example, has any Church group within the Catholic Church in Nigeria today - Knights, Catholic Women Organisation, Parishes of Dioceses outside the north - taken the trouble to organise an event, say, a dinner, to which they have invited a Bishop, Priest, Sister, or Lay person from those areas affected by persecution today to come and speak to them about the struggle of Christians to survive in the North? I really don’t know of any! Instead, we get invitations from Europeans and Americans who are anxious to hear our story and ask how they can help. It must be said that this culture of laxity among Christians, and even within the Catholic community, in Nigeria, is a present and future danger and makes us complicit in our own persecution.
I hope that our reflections here will help us to examine deeper a few options that can enable us leave our comfort zones to show more solidarity. There is an urgent need to create better synergy and networking. We are often working as Dioceses, Sodalities or ethnic groups. For example, why can we not create greater synergy among our Catholic Universities, Polytechnics, Colleges of Education, or Health facilities to give these institutions a strong Catholic character by way of exchange of expertise and sharing of resources and personnel more effectively?
It will be a great pity if Christians are looking up to President Buhari or his political Party, the All Progressive Congress, APC, to give us a sense of change. Making the world a better place, a place of peace and justice and right is our mission as Christians! Ours is the mission of being the light of the world. Perhaps, our real challenge as Catholics in Nigeria, and indeed worldwide, lies in the fact that we have not have taken very seriously the call of Jesus to be the light of the world and salt of the earth (Mt. 5: 13-14). We must re-enkindle a sense of deep passion for the Gospel, a serious commitment to walking in the footsteps of Jesus, loving our neighbor as ourself, using whatever position we hold in society to work for peace and justice and right for all people regardless of tribe or religion. Thus, our faith will offer us the oxygen to embrace persecution, knowing that, it is indeed, the path of Christian discipleship.
There is no doubt that the fire is dying in us. Compare our enthusiasm for the Gospel today with what St. Paul said: Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel (1 Cor. 9: 16). Peter enjoins us to: Keep our conscience clear, so that those who slander you may be put to shame by your upright, Christian living. Better to suffer for doing good, if it is God’s will than for doing wrong (1 Pet. 3: 17). This is what gives us confidence even when we face persecution. That is why I will like to leave you with the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch who said to the Romans:
Pray, leave me to be a meal for the beasts, for it is they who can provide my way to God…incite the creatures to become sepulcher for me, let them not leave the smallest scrap of my flesh, so that I need not be a burden to anyone after I have fallen asleep. When there is no trace of my body left for the world to see, then I shall truly be Jesus’s disciple…these chains are a school for me…Fire, cross, beast fighting, hacking, and quartering, splintering of bone and mangling of limb, even the pulverizing of my entire body. Let every horrid and diabolical torment come upon me provided only that I can win my way to Jesus Christ.