LONDON — At a cool mid-50s temperature and with an occasional rain shower, it was no surprise Nigerian Bishop Oliver Doeme, 55, was wearing a heavy coat and woolly hat indoors when the Register recently went to interview him.
But there’s nothing cool about his ardor for promoting the Rosary as a spiritual weapon to assist his suffering flock as they struggle to cope with the terrorist threat of Boko Haram.
“Thank you so much for this opportunity,” he said. “It’s a chance for me to share the sufferings of my people with the world, to ask people to pray the Rosary for us.”
The bishop had just traveled from his Diocese of Maiduguri, in Borno State in northeast Nigeria, for a five-day tour of London, including Masses, presentations and meetings.
Appointed bishop in 2009, he and the people of his diocese are living through some of the worst persecution experienced by Christians in recent times. The Islamist terror group Boko Haram has turned the Diocese of Maiduguri into a wasteland of destroyed churches, homes, schools and hospitals.
“Boko Haram wants to destroy Christianity in the northeast, in Nigeria and beyond, even the whole world,” said Bishop Doeme.
Litany of Destruction
Bishop Doeme tells the Register that an estimated 5,000 Catholics have been killed since the start of the insurgency.
“They’re in heaven with the millions of other saints and martyrs, interceding for us now on earth,” he said.
100,000 of the faithful are displaced and 25 of his 46 priests have been driven from their apostolates, while 45 religious sisters have fled. More than 350 churches and rectories have been burnt to the ground, and 22 of the 40 parish centers and chaplaincies are abandoned or occupied by Boko Haram.
According to the United Nations, at least 20,000 people have been killed since 2009, courtesy of Boko Haram attacks, while 200 of the 276 Chibok girls kidnapped in April 2014 are still missing. About 2.6 million people have been displaced to other parts of Nigeria or are spilling into Chad and Cameroon.
At the end of September, U.N. Assistant Secretary General Toby Lanzer described the situation as the worst he had ever seen, predicting it could overtake Syria in terms of the scale of need. Millions are living in famine-like conditions. The U.N. fears 70,000-80,000 children could die of starvation.
Yet the bishop stays. Why? And what gives him the strength to remain with his people?
Vision of Jesus and the Sword
“It has been a very hard time. Many are devastated, in pain, traumatized, very helpless; yes, some have even experienced moments of doubt,” he explained. “They ask, ‘Where is God? Is he alive? Why is he not intervening?’”
Then Bishop Doeme recounted what happened one evening toward the end of October 2014.
“I was in my chapel having private prayer, saying the Rosary before the Blessed Sacrament exposed. Then the Lord appeared to me, standing to the right of the altar. It was a vision, not physical.
“He appeared as Jesus the Good Shepherd, and he was holding a sword with both hands. At this, I became jittery. I said, ‘Lord, what is it?’ He didn’t say anything; he just began to approach me, then reached down and gave me the sword, which turned into a Rosary.
“Then the Lord said in English, ‘Boko Haram is gone; Boko Haram is gone; Boko Haram is gone.’ He said it three times, and then disappeared.
“It thoroughly touched me, and I kept quiet about it for months, just reflecting on it. The Lord saw the plight of the people, so he came to strengthen their faith, as they were losing hope.
“He didn’t appear to me because I’m great. I’m a poor sinner; he did this to strengthen his people, especially with the Rosary.”
It wasn’t until January 2015 that Bishop Doeme went public with the news of the vision of Jesus. During a meeting of diocesan clergy, he told his fellow shepherds what had occurred.
“The priests were happy, they thought it was [a] good [sign], and I encouraged them to be fervent in praying the Rosary,” he said.
Battles Won by the Rosary
At this point, Bishop Doeme sat up more in his chair and became passionate and animated as he talked about his Rosary plan for the diocese, peppered with examples of how the Rosary has changed the course of history and saved whole countries.
“That same month, I led the solemn consecration of the diocese to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and we’ve been doing this every year since,” he said. “I used it as an opportunity to tell the people about the vision and the need for the Rosary.
“I also wrote a pastoral letter on the Rosary and the need for many Rosary processions around the diocese, in the parishes, in the families, as it has worked wonders around the world.
“Without the Rosary, Brazil would have fallen under communism. The president of Brazil, Joao Goulart, had returned from Russia filled with communist teachings and began to build a communist government. It was Cardinal de Barros Camara who told people to follow the message of Our Lady of Fatima, and hundreds of thousands of people went into the streets to have Rosary processions.”
On April 1, 1964, President Goulart fled the country, along with members of his government.
“In 1986, the Philippines was suffering under the brutal rule of President [Ferdinand] Marcos. The people lived in fear and poverty, while he lived a life of luxury, enriching his family at the expense of the poor. To avert a potentially bloody battle, Cardinal [Jaime] Sin called on the people to pray the Rosary, and over 2 million took part. It ended peacefully, and the president fled the country.”
Bishop Doeme strongly believes that, as seen in history, the praying of the Rosary and his Rosary “battle plan” will bring about the end of Boko Haram.
“I can’t begin to say exactly how Mother Mary will do it, [as to try to explain] would be to pre-empt the mind of God and Our Lady. She has her own way to intervene, so let it be her design. I’m sure it will happen. We’re already seeing it: Boko Haram is retreating, hiding in the forests now.”
Miracles Are Happening Now
The conviction and hope were apparent in his face, as he related some of the seemingly miraculous things happening in his diocese, which he credits to praying the Rosary. He says that, since the crisis began, none of his priests have been killed, and he hasn’t been attacked or killed.
“I wear my soutane [cassock] and skull cap publicly, and enter in and out of the diocese, but I remain unharmed.”
He then related the following story.
“There was a village which Boko Haram captured, and a family was unexpectedly trapped inside their house. Boko Haram vehicles were even packed right outside the home, yet, miraculously, they never entered the house.
“The family stayed in the house, and you know what? Their food never ran out, and their water never ran out — and this carried on for months. The family were praying the Rosary morning, noon and night and remained safe and alive. It’s like Our Lady blinded Boko Haram — made the house invisible.”
In other talks, he has spoken of Catholics being captured, only to be unexplainably released days later. All the while, throughout their ordeals, they kept praying the Rosary. He also told the Register that, after ardent prayers to Our Lady, he was finally able to secure a large plot of land to build a shrine to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, although this project is a hope for the future.
Can Christians Live in Peace?
Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world. Persecution has been part of the Christian experience since Jesus walked the earth and later sent his apostles to preach the Gospel to the ends of the world.
The International Society for Human Rights says 80% of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians, while the Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates that 100,000 Christians die every year simply for being Christian. Given these dire statistics, does Bishop Doeme think peace is possible?
“Christians are the most persecuted in the world, but, yes, to some extent, it’s possible. Maiduguri was a very peaceful city until 2006, when there was violent reaction to the Danish cartoon controversy.
“There were 52 Christian places of worship in the city, and 50 of them were burned to the ground.
“While it is true there are majority-Muslim places where Christians live peacefully, in other places, like Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Egypt, it’s very different. It’s not all Muslims — it’s a pocket of fundamentalists, whose aim is to weaken the Christian faith. But we are people of hope.”
Islam was present in Nigeria as early as the 11th century, and it was the majority religion of the northern part of the country by the 16th century. Does the bishop think it would be safer to encourage people to live in other parts of Nigeria?
“Leave to go to where?” he replied. “This is our home, our land. This is the question: Where will they go? We’re ready to stay.”
Is he ready to die rather than flee danger?
“If it weren’t so, I would have left already. There were pressures on me to leave, but that would have been cowardice.
“Did the Lord not die on the cross for me? Then why should I not lay down my life for him? It’s not too hard to do, considering what Our Lord has done for me.
“I will not run, and this has been a source of strength for many bishops in Nigeria and beyond.”
Ongoing Humanitarian Disaster
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria has not stood by in the face of the growing humanitarian situation. Many people have been displaced, while others are slowly returning. A report from the Diocese of Maiduguri says there are 10,000 orphans and 7,000 widows in need of care.
“The Church is doing so much to help Catholics, other Christians and Muslims in the camps and [those] displaced in other countries,” said Bishop Doeme.
“The bishops’ conference has provided money to purchase things for displaced people in Cameroon. I went as part of a delegation to the camps in Cameroon last November, and two days before coming to London, I was personally overseeing the distribution of relief supplies for a Muslim camp. We have very little, but we try.”
“Nigeria is complex. Religion is a major conflict, which is very unfortunate, and it’s used by politicians and the powerful to bring destruction. Corruption is also a problem; for example, money designated for the military to buy weapons to fight Boko Haram ends up in private pockets, so the terrorists have better weapons than the military.
“The present government is trying, but Christians have been thoroughly neglected.”
The U.N. has appealed for $739 million for the region, known as the Lake Chad Basin, but has only received $197 million. Bishop Doeme hoped his time in London would encourage people to donate financially to meet the needs of rebuilding the diocese and caring for the people.
Message to Catholics in the West
Towards the end of the interview, Bishop Doeme became very serious. He had strong words about Boko Haram, but also strong words for the West.
“There are many demons in the world, and Boko Haram is demonic, but there are also demons in the West, especially secularism. The Church should rise to the occasion, because only the Blessed Virgin Mary can contain the demons.
“We must promote devotion to Our Lady, yes; Mary is the solution for today’s world.”
Register correspondent Daniel Blackman writes from London.