NIGERIA – ACN delegation visits the dioceses most seriously affected by Boko Haram
14 members of the pontifical foundation ACN, including some national directors and members of the communications departments of various of its national offices, travelled to the states of Borno, Jos and Kaduna, in the North of Nigeria in order to inform themselves of the situation and show solidarity with the Christians of the region, in the face of the tensions and violence that these parts of the country with a Muslim majority.
The delegation travelled by air to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, the birthplace of Boko Haram and still today one of the states most severely affected by fundamentalist Islamist terror. Although the city of Maiduguri itself is now under control of the government, which has driven the terrorists out of the town and as far as the swamps of Sambisa, the city has nevertheless suffered repeated suicide attacks in recent weeks. Borno state has no fewer than 20 government refugee camps, for example Dalori, with over 14,000 people in it. There are also an estimated 500,000 refugees now living in the state capital, where they have been taken in by family members, friends or charitable institutions. The ACN delegation visited 25 Catholic families from the community of Pulka de Gwoza, who have now been living as refugees for the past two years in an area made available to them by the Church in Maiduguri, and also a non-government camp with 7,000 Christian refugees of various different denominations, run by the Christian Nigerian Association, CNA.
According to figures provided by the United Nations, Boko Haram has affected the lives of 26 million people, in Borno state and in five other states of Northern Nigeria. The Catholic diocese of Maiduguri alone has registered over 5,000 widows and 15,000 orphans. The ACN delegation was able to put faces to the statistics by listening to the terrible and agonising testimonies of some of these victims – women forced to watch their husbands’ throats cut, priests who had to secretly evacuate dozens of children from the schools, people who had survived for weeks hidden in their homes in order to avoid being found by the terrorists… and also testimonies like those of Rebeca and Raquel, who were captured and tortured by Boko Haram. At the end of the visit, the Bishop of Maiduguri, Mgr. Oliver Doeme thanked the ACN delegation for the “uncommon courage you have displayed in taking the risk to come and strengthen our people. It was a wonderful and moving experience.”
Especially important for ACN’s information work was the visit to the diocese of Kafanchan in the southern part of Kaduna state, which since the end of 2016 has been suffering a spate of savage attacks by Fulani tribesmen – nomadic Muslim pastoralists who have been destroying Christian villages. Although these problems are ancestral and the Fulani are expanding across a number of African countries, in the region of Kafanchan since 2011 there have been no fewer than 71 villages attacked with a total of 988 people killed, 2,712 houses and 20 churches destroyed, according to a report handed by the diocese to the ACN delegation. Above all, the lack of any protection or response by the security forces has created consternation in the Christian community here in the south of Kaduna state. The report documents cases of deliberate inaction and even collaboration by the state forces with the attackers.
María Lozano, head of the international press department of ACN, who organised the trip, summarises the information gathered from various meetings with Church leaders and local political and press representatives in Jos, Plateau and Kaduna states: “The attacks by Boko Haram and the Fulani are only the tip of the iceberg, but in reality the Christians living in the states of northern Nigeria with a Muslim majority suffer constant discrimination and have been the victims of attacks and persecution in a cyclic and continuing manner for decades. For example, in Kaduna in the 1970s the state government expropriated 17 Catholic schools without any form of compensation. Especially since the introduction of sharia law in the year 2000 by no fewer than 12 of the 19 states of North Nigeria, the civil and legal support for the Christians has been very feeble. This is something not widely known in the Western world.
Nonetheless, the really moving thing about this trip, on a personal level, has been the joy and faith of these people. They are living in constant danger, yet their churches are full. When they ask for help in Europe to build churches, people often tell them, but it is very big, there is no need for such a big church… But they do need big churches, very big ones. It is difficult to understand from our perspective, but the people of Nigeria are truly thirsting for God. They are growing, and this is why they are being attacked, because the fundamentalists see them as a threat. They are proud and happy of their faith. Every Mass is a feast, every encounter a celebration of joy. And finally, the example of Christian forgiveness and reconciliation in the face of the attacks and harassment is a moving one.”
In addition to gathering first-hand information and visiting the communities who are suffering on account of their faith, the ACN delegation took advantage of the occasion to visit some of the projects the charity has been funding in this part of the country, thanks to the generous support of its many benefactors. Among these were two churches and parish houses in Kaduna that had been destroyed in attacks by Islamist fundamentalists and rebuilt thanks to the support of the foundation. And also the major seminaries of Saint Augustine in Jos and the Good Shepherd in Kaduna, with 437 and 147 seminarians respectively, which are receiving annual support from ACN and which now also need help to enlarge their premises, owing to the fact that the number of aspirants for the priesthood is growing and there is no physical space available to accommodate them.
Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference, described the trip as the ‘sacrament of presence’ and summed up the effect of the visit by ACN to the dioceses of Maiduguri, Jos, Kafanchan and Kaduna with these words: “This visit brought to prominence the need for pastoral solidarity between the Church of other continents and Africa. Relationships should not be formed or based only on television, newspaper or radio reports or letters through posts or emails. Such a warm friendly visit by the fourteen men and women bound together by the mission and vision of ACN, who came to celebrate the “sacrament of presence” in Nigeria is a veritable witnessing in love. The visit was therapeutic to a people traumatized by natural disasters, the menace of criminals and religious fanatics, persecution, discrimination and the challenges of daily life. They had time to learn about issues such as inter-religious dialogue (Muslim/Christian relationship in Nigeria), peace building initiatives, pastoral growth, etc.”
The situation and the witness of the Catholic Christians in North Nigeria are one of the focuses of ACN’s Lenten Campaign, which has been devoted to Africa this year under the title “Their Faith is our Hope”. ACN is currently studying a package of emergency aid measures for those affected by the attacks of the Fulani in Kafanchan and for the victims of Boko Haram in the diocese of Maiduguri. At the same time they have also been asked to help with the rebuilding of the minor seminary of Saint Joseph, which has been closed since 2014 after being attacked and destroyed by the terrorists of Boko Haram.
Maria Lozano – ACN International