As a sovereign nation, Nigeria has a bright future. However, it has not yet been able to grow sustainably because of the social problems that have dogged it since its founding. Achieving the desired peaceful coexistence has become one of its greatest challenges.
-text Jerome Omoregie, Lagos (Nigeria)
In recent years, the reality of Christians Nigeria has been affected by the emergence of radical Islamist groups. Persecution has reached the point of placing Nigeria as the second country where the most Christians are attacked, according to Open Doors' 2017 World Persecution List.
Nigeria has come a long way in the last 57 years of independent rule. With democracy, there is now both government and opposition, a situation that is creating an environment conducive to healthy political, economic and social competition and evolution. This progress is the result of the need to change the tension and dissatisfaction the country has been experiencing as a result of years of injustice, insecurity and corruption.
Nigerian society already sees gradual economic growth and an initial fight against corruption. But the government still has a lot of work to do. To heal the wounds of the past, the authorities are expected to listen to everyone, fulfill their promise to fight corruption regardless of ethno-political affiliation, and enact laws that favor the education and health sector.
It also calls for more transparency in the appointment of civil servants and government personnel, the reduction of the excessive cost of public administration and, in short, a balanced treatment of religious denominations.
We are aware of the significant reduction in the insurgency of Boko Haram, a jihadist group that has kidnapped, enslaved and killed thousands of Christians in Nigeria. The successful release of some of the 219 girls abducted from Chibok (northeast of the country) in 2014 has brought hope to a people who have lived under the yoke of terror. In this case, the Nigerian government's effort to put an end to the sequence of painful and inhumane events has been noticed. On the other hand, the recent wave of kidnappings of priests and religious has resulted in the loss of some lives and has generated much social tension. So far there is no known political or religious background behind these kidnappings, except for possible economic interests of private individuals.
Impact on Christianity
How do these events affect the life and activities of the Catholic Church in Nigeria? It is true that there has been excessive religious violence in the past, but the suffering from Boko Haram threats and abuses is still present in northeastern Nigeria, where the violence went so far as to inhibit normal public worship. Sadly, churches have been the main targets of terrorist attacks.
Our current objective is to reconcile the aggrieved parties in the affected communities. Thanks to the negotiations, life is gradually returning to normal and it is hoped that the lost trust will be restored.
Although many areas of the country enjoy harmonious coexistence, religious intolerance still persists. This is denounced, for example, in the communiqué issued by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria in September 2017: "Those governments in the North that deny some of our dioceses their right to own land for the mission are opposed to giving title deeds to the land.". These events go against the right to freedom of worship guaranteed by the Constitution.
I believe that the Christian faith has always witnessed challenges and will continue to do so. The Church becomes stronger in the midst of these difficulties because our strength comes from divine grace. It is moving to see that even in the face of threats to the lives of parishioners from terrorist attacks, testimonies abound of courageous priests and lay people who gather to celebrate Holy Mass.
Possible steps forward
The situation facing Catholicism in Nigeria (23 million inhabitants), with the second largest number of faithful in Africa, has a great challenge ahead. However, we are confident that we will be able to overcome the conflicts. How? Through dialogue, education and respect.
Dialogue, based on mutual respect and sincere listening, remains a true way to address disagreements. The Catholic Church has always engaged in dialogue on several fronts. First, with other Christians to seek common ground and achieve unity. On the other hand, with non-Christian religions to seek peaceful and respectful coexistence. On a third level, with the government in order to legitimately address political decisions that have a negative impact on the Nigerian population. Ongoing dialogue at all these levels must continue, for only when we begin to see each other as brothers will violence cease to be an option.
Education is imperative to ensure social progress. As such, a return to collaboration between Church and State would ensure the provision of high quality education that upholds values that help build a united nation. I do not advocate a nostalgic return to the old days of the Missionary Schools. Instead, we should work toward the kind of Church-State collaboration that has as its pillars the values inherited from those days and adapts them to the needs of the times.
Likewise, Christian commitment to nation-building through respect for constituted authority should be encouraged. Christians are called to participate actively in socio-political affairs in order to bring about the necessary transformation (cf. Lumen Gentium, 35; Christifideles laici, 15). Positive evolution is achieved when those who have the capacity to make the necessary changes act accordingly. Government must, in turn, complement this gesture with respect for and non-selective application of the rule of law.
As we look to the future and work to become a nation that lives in freedom, peace and unity, we must be patient. The process of reparation takes time. Here, we Catholics have an important role to play in building the country, and it is the duty of the state to guarantee freedom of worship for all.
Fraternal dialogue, quality education and universal respect, without exceptions, become essential tools to guarantee the longed-for peace. As Christians, we must also entrust Nigeria to the guidance of the Holy Spirit who blows where he wills and whose transforming action penetrates the hearts of all people.