By Lorenzo Margiotta
For the Christians in Nigeria to live their faith, has become very risky. Even an ordinary gesture such as the Sunday Mass, can cost one’s life: already ten times, from January up to now, the masses have been interrupted by Islamic attacks with mass killings of worshippers. The most recent occurrence was in the Kogi State, in the northern part of Nigeria. Around ten gunmen entered an evangelical church, during the reading of the Bible one Monday evening, closed the door, turned off the lights and opened fire on the faithful. Nineteen Christians were killed.
Nigeria, the most populated country in Africa with its 160 millions of inhabitants, is torn by internal fights: among 250 ethnic groups within the country, between the Islamists in the North and the Christian in the South, between political factions, and those fighting for oil control in the South. How do Christians live in this country where religious freedom does not actually exist? What is their hope in change based on? These are some of the topics that Monsignor Ignatius Kaigama, Archbishop of Jos and President of the Nigerian Episcopal Conference, will speak about during today’s meeting (at 12:30pm, Auditorium B7). We were able to contact him via telephone for some questions.
Monsignor Kaigama, since the beginning of the year, there have been more than 600 people killed in the attacks in Nigeria. What are the reasons for this?
“These massacres are in great part caused by the fundamentalist Islamic group Boko Haram (literally meaning “Western education is forbidden”). They operate in the Northern part of Nigeria where all these acts of violence are occurring. It is a group that intends to replace the Constitution with Islamic law in order to forcefully convert the people to Islam. They initially began to attack the government, its institutions and security agencies, then initiated attacks on churches. They want to eliminate churches because they educate and promote culture.”
What does the government do to guarantee security and protect the population? Boko Haram asked President Goodluck Jonathan, who is a Christian, to resign and convert to Islam.
“The violence by these groups is also fostered by the incapacity of the government to control the situation. Police and military forces do exist but up to now they have not been able to put an end to these massacres. Coordination between the different parties responsible for security is lacking. Churches are continuously under attack, in Kaduna, in Kano, in Jos, and we begin to feel abandoned, without any help. The attacks occur when we least expect it; many Christians are now afraid to go to mass and exercise their rights as Christians.”
Nonetheless even Muslims have been under attack. Is it appropriate to speak about this situation as a war of religion?
The reason for this conflict is mainly economical, fuelled by poverty and corruption. The fundamentalists of Boko Haram are very clear in their intentions: they want to kill government officials, security agents and Christians. They have no scruples to even kill Muslims who collaborate with the government and promote security. Terrorists have no respect for life - they kill others thus killing themselves. Their aim is to create confusion. We always try to make a distinction between the fanatic fundamentalist groups and ordinary Muslims because ordinary Muslims in Nigeria want to live in peace with their neighbours.”
How do you believe it is possible to get out of this situation? Is there hope for an end to the violence?
“Ending violence is a responsibility of the government. As religious leaders we can only teach the people not to respond to violence with violence, but we cannot enforce the law in order to stop these diabolic people that attack Nigerians within the country. The federal government, however, does not seem capable of effectively countering terrorism: these attacks have been occurring since 2009 and up to now there has been no adequate response. Considering the situation, the population is increasingly afraid. We require definitive action against Boko Haram, which has substantial amounts of money, sophisticated arms at its disposal, great exposure on the Internet and close contact with journalists. If the government cannot handle this on its own they have to look for support outside in order to involve those who have the means to assist. The fundamentalists of Boko Haram can be defeated. I am worried by the fact that, up to this point, no one has been able to initiate a dialogue.”
What can we do from Europe to help the Christians in Nigeria?
“First of all pray for the improvement of security conditions, so people may recognize the value of human life and learn to make use of dialogue instead of violence. Secondly, it is important to pressure your own governments to intervene in this affair. They have to do their part so as to prevent the spread of similar events to other parts of Africa. Boko Haram declare to be against education, values and culture. This means that, gradually, we might find similar events even in Europe, regardless of whose name the acts are committed in. The international community must express its solidarity concretely and do everything possible in order for the Nigerian government to effectively carry out strategies for security and intelligence policy. Christians in Europe need to convince their own governments to support the Christians in Nigeria so that there are no more deaths at the hands of Boko Haram. Brothers and sisters that live far away, we need your solidarity, we need your friendship in order to give religious freedom back not only to Christians, but to all human beings that live in Nigeria, so that they may be protected and free.
What does it mean to be the Pastor of a flock always under threat?
“The situation is very difficult because people are afraid. I encourage them to live their religious responsibility, to continue to have faith. People would like to give financial support to the church but they are not in the condition to do it. I tell my people to be strong and I am happy that many are responding. Some are afraid and flee but a substantial part is responding in a positive way. You never know when you might be fired upon; bombs may explode and you may be killed when you do not expect it. Every time I enter my car to travel to the Cathedral or to visit the villages, I know I might not return home. However, I am convinced we can overcome this difficult situation.”
By Lorenzo Margiotta