The church goes beyond structures. The church, they say, is the people. From time immemorial, Christianity has always been faced with persecution, with Nigeria’s Christendom in recent times, threatened by insurgency. However, with the onslaught of the military against insurgents, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are returning home. RITA OKONOBOH examines the ongoing efforts and measures that can be taken to rebuild churches affected by insurgency and the Christian call for forgiveness of terrorists.
WHEN in March 2016, the news made the headlines that violent killing of Christians in northern Nigeria had increased by 62 per cent in just one year, according to a report released by Open Doors and the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), entitled ‘Crushed but not defeated, the impact of persistent violence on the church in northern Nigeria,’ it was proof that persecution of Christians had long moved from mere statements to a sad reality, with many incidents remaining unreported.
According to the report published by Open Doors, an organisation dedicated to issues as it affects Christians worldwide, a partner director for West Africa was quoted as stating that “This report shows that extent and impact of the persistent violence on the church in northern Nigeria is much more serious than previously expected. Once Boko Haram is defeated, the problem will not be solved. Christians living under Sharia law are facing discrimination and marginalisation and have limited to no access to federal rights. We hope that this report will prompt the Nigerian government and international community to take the real suffering of persecuted Christians seriously and act on their behalf. Next to that, I hope that Nigerian Christians will become more involved with their brothers and sisters; that they will stand in the gap for them.”
According to Open Doors, “In 2015, there were 4,028 killings and 198 church attacks that Open Doors was able to record. The figures recorded for the previous year were 2,484 killings and 108 church attacks. An estimated 30 million Christians in northern Nigeria form the largest minority in a mainly Muslim environment. They are at risk of violent persecution, as the report states: ‘For decades, Christians in the region have suffered marginalisation and discrimination as well as targeted violence.’”
While the military continues its attacks against members of the Boko Haram sect, in order to bring lasting peace and unity in Nigeria, with many IDPs returning home, the Christian community is contributing, in no small quota, to ensuring that the churches affected by insurgency are rebuilt, in structure and by improving the welfare of the people. There have been major moves in terms of material donations and encouragement by orthodox churches as well as pentecostal churches, Christian organisations, non-governmental organisations, government, well meaning individuals, among others. Efforts have been ongoing to restore normalcy to these areas and ways have been suggested to further the spread of the gospel among these communities.
The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) under the leadership of Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor undertook intense efforts at ensuring that the message of the gospel, especially for persons displaced by insurgency, is not affected negatively. Even with the fact that positions in CAN are strictly for service as they are not paid positions, major donations running into millions of naira, and establishment of Christian centres and groups to further the spread of the gospel were made, and the new CAN administration, under the leadership of Reverend (Dr) Olasupo Ayokunle, has also taken major steps to better the lot of Christians and churches affected by insurgency.
I will not rest until IDPs are adequately taken care of –Ayokunle, CAN President
Speaking with TribuneChurch, Reverend Ayokunle, who is also the President of the Nigerian Baptist Convention (NBC), stated that, “in terms of what Pastor Oritsejafor has done, God gave him resources and he spent them for the church. It is very difficult to have another Christian leader that will have that advantage and that kind of spirit. Although the NBC as an established organisation also has commitments, including to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), running into several millions, this CAN administration will do its best, but it would be better not to compare because areas of ministry differ. I can assure you that I will not keep my mouth shut until all those who are passing through hard times and victims of insurgency are properly taken care of, either through CAN, the government, or non-governmental organisations. At the World Council of Churches (WCC), I presented a strong position on the need for IDPs in Nigeria to be attended to and by the grace of God, in February or March 2017, the WCC will lay the foundation for an international inter-faith religious centre in Kaduna, so that what led to the Boko Haram insurgency will not repeat itself in our nation. That is part of our success story already. I also spoke at the Baptist World Alliance in Vancouver for IDPs and the BWA adopted a resolution which has been passed to President Barack Obama, to employ an envoy to take care of the IDPs in Nigeria. So, we will build on what Pastor Oritsejafor has done, but the style may be different.”
Most Reverend Nicholas Okoh, Primate of the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion, in a recent interview stated that “Not much had been done to restructure or review the trend. In Damaturu, Yobe State, we have not been able to do much because if you go there; even the bishop himself is on exile in Jos. He lives in Jos and only goes there to see how things are. A lot was damaged in Mubi area under Yola diocese and Maiduguri. These things take time, and we hope that the efforts being made by government to rebuild the North-East will also include rehabilitating the religious facilities that have been damaged by the Boko Haram insurgency. So it is not just their houses or farms that were affected, there are certain other facilities that were destroyed.” However, the Anglican Communion has not rested on its oars to ensure that churches affected on insurgency are given a chance at new beginnings.
Over 100,000 Catholic faithful, priests displaced —Fr Obasogie
Reverend Father Gideon Obasogie, the Director of Communications, Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri, also told TribuneChurch how insurgency has affected churches and steps taken to improve the condition of things.
“Insurgency has really crippled the church in Maiduguri, and the North-East because we have a lot of churches burnt down and lots of churches destroyed, including rectories, that is, where parish priests stay. A lot of priests fled and have been displaced because of terror attacks. We have about 26 priests and over 100,000 Catholic faithful displaced but we thank God now that people are gradually coming back to their communities.
“The bishop, priests and the Catholic faithful are still on ground. Recently, we had ordination of priests and also four priests marked their silver jubilee in the priesthood and we had bishops from various dioceses, including the Catholic bishop of Enugu, who came not just for the ordination, but also as a solidarity visit to the church here in Maiduguri. The fact is that our people are strong in the faith and we are struggling to begin life anew. Our people are not ready to run away and have shown a dogged determination to the faith, and God has always been on our side. Before now, even if there was a bomb blast on a Sunday morning, you’ll still see people struggling to find their way to church for mass. Even if there is a curfew, people still trek to the churches, even if it’s to thank God that they’re still alive till now. The fact that our people are still faithful means that we have a hope for a better tomorrow and I think the church in its little way is on ground and is praying as well as trying to rebuild the structures. We only hope that the government and well meaning Nigerians would come to the aid of the church in this regard. Beyond having places of worship such as churches and mosques, other facilities are also required on ground such as hospitals, schools and the like.”
While commending the military for their efforts at stamping out insurgency, Fr Obasogie noted that people were coming back but some people were still hanging around Yola, Jos, because they were not yet assured of better lives and proper security. He called on government and Nigerians to step in to ensure that schools, clinics, hospitals and other structures that were burnt down were rebuilt.
Forgiveness for terrorists?
People have lost wives, husbands, children, limbs, properties, and for some, they have even lost hope. With such amount of losses, the question of forgiveness of terrorists comes in. While the Christian faith encourages forgiveness, no matter what the situation, IDPs are only human after all.
In his message on forgiveness, Fr Obasogie stated that “our message has been very clearly presented. A few months ago, the Catholic Bishop of Maiduguri, Most Reverend Oliver Dashe Doeme, embarked on a solidarity visit to communities affected by insurgency and his key message was that the people must forgive the terrorists. For us to become real Christians, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, we have to forgive them.”
Continuing, he stated that at all the masses the bishop celebrated during that visit, he called for the need for victims to keep to the Christian identity by not taking up arms, seeking vengeance but by letting the past be forgotten. He not only called for forgiveness, but also called for reconciliation and letting peace reign. The fact that the Catholic Church is in the Jubilee Year of Mercy is instructive, meaningful and practical for the people in Maiduguri. The church has called on those affected to be merciful not only to those that hurt them, but to themselves as well. If Christians take up arms against those perceived as terrorists, we will end up in a vicious cycle of war, so there has to be a stop, according to the bishop.
For the Secretary, Christian Youth Network for a Better Nigeria, Kaduna, Mr Simon Topa Ozigagu, “we should identify with the leaders of these churches that have problems and ascertain the damage made so that assistance will be provided on rebuilding. It is not the churches that matter, seeing as we make up the church. The churches may be rebuilt and people will refuse to attend because people are not yet fully assured. So, there needs to be a re-orientation on why people need to fellowship as a Christian body, even before the churches are rebuilt. Government can set up a task force, headed by religious persons that can go round and ascertain the extent of the damage so that they can provide support. Some of the churches affected are small churches and may not be able to rebuild without assistance from government and well meaning individuals, especially in the face of the state of the economy.
“To the Christians going back home, we should have it at the back of our mind that these are trying times. Even Christ talked about persecution. We have faced persecution but we shouldn’t despair. We should see it as a trial that should make us stronger. We should forgive the terrorists and find the strength in God to move ahead.”