Living Lent in Solidarity With Our Suffering Nigerian Brothers and Sisters
COMMENTARY: These 40 days are an opportunity to support our spiritual siblings.
As Catholics throughout the world enter into the desert with Jesus for the season of Lent, to repent anew and believe in the Gospel, to pick up our daily cross and follow him, and at his encouragement, to imitate his prayer, fasting and charity, it’s key to do so with a clear sense of the purpose and goal of the season. Conversion means more than turning away from sin and turning with fidelity toward Christ; it means literally to “turn with” Christ consistently, perseveringly, full time.
Our Lenten penances, sacrifices and practices are all supposed to help us follow Christ as he seeks to help us to fast, so that he as Bridegroom can be with us in all parts of our life, to pray by entering his own prayer to the Father, and to give of ourselves and our gifts to our neighbor together with him who has given his own life to save ours.
Many of our Lenten penances and sacrifices are inadequate to the restoration of holiness that our Lenten ascesis is supposed to foster. For most people, giving up chocolate, filling up a rice bowl with loose change or attending the Stations of the Cross on Friday are not going to bring about a radical reset in life. Many have become accustomed over time just to “do something,” but not much. They can regard the summons to prayer, almsgiving and fasting as a multiple-choice test rather than as a complementary call to reorder their relationship with God, others and themselves, respectively. Their Lent is marked more by minimalism than heroism.
To rediscover the valor that’s meant to characterize Lent, it’s helpful to view it through the context of those for whom the cruciform nature of Christian discipleship is a daily reality. There would be lots of examples on which to focus, like those with debilitating illnesses or the manifold sufferings of those in the Ukraine as we approach the first anniversary of the infernal Russian invasion and bombardment. But this Lent I’m focused in a particular way on the sufferings of our brothers and sisters in Nigeria, where more Christians are being martyred each year than in the rest of the world combined.
Over the last few years in Nigeria, 13 Christians are killed for the faith every day, one about every two hours. Armed groups like Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and Fulani Herdsman, motivated by a militant version of Islam, are attacking Christian churches, villages and families, burning buildings to the ground, massacring thousands with guns, machetes and torches each year, kidnapping thousands of others for ransom, and forcing survivors to flee to refugee camps while the murderous mobs take over their lands.
And it’s happening for the most part with impunity, as the federal government of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim, and many regional governments — not to mention the international community — forsake their responsibilities to protect and restore justice, downplay the bloodshed, ignore its genocidal aspects, and often pretend as if there’s no religious dimension to what’s taken place.
Yet, amazingly, when Nigerians even in relatively safer places in the more Christian south of the country have been massacred during Church liturgies — like at St. Francis Xavier Church in Owo in Ondo State on Pentecost 2022, where 38 were killed and 80 injured — Mass attendance in Nigeria is 94%, by far the highest of any country in the world. For comparison, the U.S. is at 17%.
Despite living in the most dangerous place in the world for Christians, Nigerians grasp that to be a Christian means to follow a Crucified Savior who promised that we would suffer on account of his name, and so they do, with inspiring courage.
The human face of what Christians are undergoing is laid out in moving detail in a new book of testimonies by the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need entitled Nigeria: A Bleeding Wound, released on Ash Wednesday. The 39-page book presents 26 firsthand accounts of Christian survivors of recent anti-Christian atrocities.
It’s gut-wrenching reading: Daughters describe their fathers being decapitated in front of them and sons their mothers; siblings forced to watch the dismembering of their brothers; pregnant moms enduring the attempt to kill their in-utero babies; the torching of whole villages and homes with people within; gunning down the faithful during worship before blowing up the church with dynamite; kidnapping women and priests and holding them for ransom while torturing them; and more. It involves testimony from victims — men, women, boys, girls and priests — as young as 5 and as old as 65.
They also detail the long road to recovery from the trauma after the attacks, life in the refugee camps, and the struggle to learn new trades to support themselves.
It recounts the spiritual disorientation that comes from the attack. A 5-year-old boy said, “I don’t want to go to church again, because if I do, I might be killed.” A 9-year-old girl who dreamed of being a nun stated, “I am not sure if I will be able to continue going to church for now, because it was when I went to church that I was shot. I don’t want to die.”
But it also gives witness to faithful defiance and resilience. That is seen especially in the situation of those who, like Christ on the cross, forgive and pray for the conversion of their attackers. A 22-year-old woman whose father was decapitated in front of her for not having incestuous relations with her, who later was kidnapped and tortured for six days that seemed like six years, said, “I can’t even believe that I am the one saying this, but I have forgiven them in my heart and I pray for the redemption of their souls.”
A 20-year-old mother who watched as Fulani murdered her husband, covered her in his blood, and then suffered machete blows to her head, shoulder, back and hand, and endured having three fingers cut off, said, “As Christians, we are taught to forgive those who trespass against us so that we may also be forgiven.
“So I have forgiven them for the pain they have inflicted on me.”
Christians from persecuted lands often rightly express their astonishment at what can preoccupy Christians in the countries of the West, like which gender pronouns to use in liturgical translations and how to make Christ’s radical standards somehow palatable to those who want to persevere in lifestyles incompatible with the Gospel. They sometimes wonder how such concerns can be prioritized over the atrocities happening to their brothers and sisters in different parts of the globe.
Nigerian Christians had been on guard ahead of the presidential elections on Feb. 25 (and, if there is a need for a runoff, on March 11). There were four main tickets running, with Catholic Peter Obi, the former governor of Anambra State, leading the polling ahead of time.
Many Christian leaders were concerned that Boko Haram, ISWAP, and the Fulani will escalate anti-Christian violence in the days leading up to the election as well as on election day itself, in order to depress turnout among Christians. After the election, Christian leaders think there will be violence regardless of the outcome. If Obi wins, they believe Christians will be attacked by such groups trying to pretend that Christians “stole” the election; if Obi loses, they fear that anti-Christian groups will see it as a green light to continue their vigilante attacks, immune to investigation and punishment.
This Lent is an opportunity to grow in real solidarity with our suffering spiritual siblings.
As we focus on increasing the quantity and quality of our prayer, it’s a chance to pray for our brothers and sisters in Nigeria and in other situations of persecution, particularly as the election approaches.
It’s an opportunity to sacrifice for them and their many needs as they try to rebuild their lives, as well as their churches, such as through helping Aid to the Church in Need in its funding of refugee camps and trauma counseling centers, its rebuilding of churches and more. It’s an occasion to fast in union with those who are often hungry, as we begin to share their hunger for basic peace, justice and religious freedom.
As the prophet Isaiah will proclaim at Mass the day before their presidential election, it’s a time not to turn our backs on our own, but to turn with Christ to his persecuted flock in West Africa.