Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, Nigeria, spoke at the United Nations March 1 to urge the international community to confront the spread of religious extremism and promote the freedom and rights of all believers, including African Christians killed and persecuted for their faith and communal affiliation.
The archbishop also participated in a panel discussion on religious freedom hosted by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See.
About half of Nigeria’s population is Christian, an estimated 80 million people, and they are dominant in the south and central regions of the country. Islam is the majority religion in the north, and Christians have faced growing violence there since the passage of sharia (Islamic) law in 2002.
At the U.N. and in Nigeria, the archbishop has spoken out against anti-Christian discrimination in government employment and related fields. And last year, he called on the government of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to send more security personnel and equipment to end killings and destruction of property in Plateau, where nomadic herdsman, who are Muslim, have attacked and killed Christian farmers.
Archbishop Kaigama spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond March 3 about the rise of Boko Haram, the Islamic terrorist group that has killed an estimated 28,000 people and forced 3.8 million to flee their homes. He outlined his own efforts to advance religious freedom and genuine dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
You traveled from Africa to highlight the need for Christian-Muslim dialogue and promote religious liberty for all, including Christians. Why did you choose this moment?
I am here at the invitation of the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See, to join a panel discussion at a conference commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly the clause dealing with religious freedom, and I have come to share my perspective.
Many U.S. Catholics only learned about religious extremism in Nigeria after the international media reported on the abductions of hundreds of schoolgirls by Boko Haram. Would you discuss the origins of Boko Haram and its present status?
When Boko Haram started in 2002, the government didn’t take them seriously. They didn’t believe they would constitute such a security threat.
They began as a group united to promote Islam and propagate a message of peace. But due to manipulation, and perhaps a faulty interpretation of scripture and tradition, they became militant and violent.
It was the imprisonment and extrajudicial murder of the group’s founder, Yusuf Mohammed, in 2009 that fueled the militancy.
Perhaps if there had been some degree of dialogue during Boko Haram’s early period, the group might have taken a different path. But they were ignored, and they progressed from using sticks to knives and from knives to guns. Now, they have the most sophisticated weapons available and can attack Nigerian military personnel and take away their weapons.
They have targeted Christians. The Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria, the heart of Boko Haram’s territory, has lost parish schools, churches and clinics. Laypeople and priests have been killed.
Boko Haram has also attacked banks, markets and even Muslim mosques. And they have kidnapped women.
Since then, the international community has offered help to degrade the activities of Boko Haram, but it doesn’t seem effective. They were repelled and defeated, but they regrouped and are back with a vengeance.
At the U.N., you discussed the case of Leah Sharibu, a Christian schoolgirl abducted by Boko Haram, along with 100 of her schoolmates, Feb. 12, 2018, in the village of Dapchi in Yobe State. Her schoolmates were later released, but Leah remains in captivity because she reportedly refused to denounce Christianity and convert to Islam. Can you tell us anything more about her case?
The report about Leah came from the girls who were released. Forced conversion is the trademark of Boko Haram.
Leah’s family is devastated. No one has been able to communicate with her, and they don’t know her whereabouts.
The government is involved in the negotiations for her release, but from what we have heard, Boko Haram is asking for a huge ransom, and the government is refusing to pay, possibly because it would put more money into the hands of terrorists and would better equip their movement.
Is her plight well-known to Nigerian Christians?
Her situation is well-known to all Nigerians, because both Christian and Muslim schoolgirls have been kidnapped, and Boko Haram militants have killed people during prayer at the mosques. Initially, they targeted Christian people and churches, but, subsequently, they have targeted Muslims who do not share their ideology.
At the U.N., you said that all religious believers must learn to speak courageously and candidly about religious persecution and intolerance and not ignore the problem when they crop up in their own faith community. Can you explain?
I said, “Christians and Muslims must be able to speak objectively and dispassionately about negative religious tendencies without one taking offense because it concerns their religious group.”
We need to improve the quality of interfaith dialogue. It is not enough to exchange pleasantries, take a cup of tea, and then disperse. That is not dialogue. We should be able to touch on sensitive issues and condemn violence in the name of religion.
Look at the 2007 case of Christiana Oluwatoyin Olusase, a Christian high-school teacher who was supervising an examination on Islamic religious knowledge. When the students failed to follow the rules and keep their bags away from their seats, she collected them and kept them together in a separate place. One student said she had desecrated the Quran by touching the bag where it was kept. Then the students attacked the teacher, clubbing her to death and setting her body on fire. No action was taken against them.
We should be able to talk about this kind of action objectively and say this is wrong. But, sometimes, people are afraid to do that.
We need to condemn what is wrong — whoever perpetrates the violence and persecution. It doesn’t matter if it is my brother, my co-religionist; shedding innocent blood is wrong.
When someone from my religion does that, I should be the first to say, “This is criminal. This is diabolical.” We need to surrender them to the authorities and not say, “These are ours; please don’t punish them.”
If I refuse to do that, I am an accomplice.
Has the spread of Christianity in parts of Nigeria fueled anti-Christian persecution?
There is competition for numerical strength and expansion. You will get Muslims saying, “We want to Islamicize all of Nigeria.” There [are also] Christians who feel the same about their religion.
In the northern part of Nigeria that is heavily Muslim, any Christian activity is viewed as a problem. It is difficult, if not impossible, to offer classes in Christian religious knowledge in schools, and this gives the impression that they are afraid of the expansion of Christian faith. In parts of the south, where Christians are the majority, the Muslim minority also would not have access to religious education on Islam.
Still, Muslims in the south manage better than Christians do in the north, where there is more mutual distrust and suspicion, and the slightest issue can trigger terrible destruction.
How are you trying to address these problems in Jos?
Christians and Muslims will travel along parallel lines, with no meeting point, if we don’t do something positive. That is why I started the Dialogue, Reconciliation and Peace Center in Jos in 2013.
After so many conflicts and bloodletting over religion, land issues and politics, I said, “Let’s start a center that is neutral and proactive and where everyone can be safe.”
For the general elections this year, we have brought all political parties together to talk and agree that they will not generate violence related to religion and other issues. Elections are usually characterized by violence and terrible disruptions, and we wanted to address that proactively.
The Christian farmers and Muslim herdsman in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria, which includes my diocese, [who] have been engaged in conflicts over issues that affect each community’s survival and livelihood, have been brought together to discuss their problems, and that has helped to minimize the frequency of attacks.
We also have a new peace education program that brings young Muslim and Christian youth together. At this point, it is a small symbolic gesture, but it is making a difference.
How do these initiatives relate to the work of the Holy See? Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have challenged Muslims and other religious leaders to denounce efforts to advance extremist ideologies and violence in the name of religion.
We are completely in agreement with what the Holy Father is saying and doing. It is about our common humanity across religious lines. If we are walking and thinking together, we stand to achieve a lot.
Religion can promote spiritual progress and social order, or it can become wild and exaggerated. Like politics, it can be misused.
We are trying to show that religion can be a powerful force for good, and our episcopal conference is doing everything possible to promote religious freedom and harmony in Nigeria.
We are with the Pope on this.
What can U.S. Catholics do to help the Church in Nigeria?
First, they must understand the issues, the history of the country and its cultural composition. That is why my presence here is important.
Our churches have been demolished, and our people have been demoralized.
If we are one Catholic, apostolic Church, that means we are one family. We need prayers, we need solidarity, and we need material support to help rebuild and get back on our feet.
Aid to the Church in Need and other faith-based agencies have been our lifeblood.