The turmoil continues in Nigeria. Reports of the defeat of the terrorist group “Boko Haram” contradict what the priest John Bakeni experiences every day. The priest is responsible for coordinating aid for survivors of terrorist attacks and displaced persons in his native diocese of Maiduguri in northern Nigeria. The international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has been working closely together with him for many years.
While the threat of terrorist attacks is omnipresent in the north, in Central Nigeria, attacks on Christian farmers by the predominantly Muslim nomads from the tribe of the Fulani are becoming ever more frequent. According to the project partners of ACN, anti-religious sentiments can also be found behind disputes over land.
Roman Kris from the youth magazine “f1rstlife” talked with John Bakeni about the current situation.
Roman Kris: Father John, Boko Haram is considered one of the most dangerous Islamist terrorist groups in the world. Recently, attacks on Christian farmers by Fulani shepherds have been occurring more frequently. What is the current situation?
Unfortunately, not much has changed. A large number of villages are still under attack. Even as we speak, people are being killed and their property destroyed. The fact that the people in rural areas are no longer able to cultivate their fields is deeply concerning. They are afraid of being kidnapped or killed. The state of safety in the nation is becoming ever more precarious.
Which dangers and challenges do you personally face?
The persecution of the Christian minority has been a problem in northern Nigeria for a long time. It ranges from political exclusion and the refusal to approve properties for the building of churches to the kidnapping and forced marriage of young girls as an act of calculated violence. The attacks on Christians are growing more flagrant and more aggressive. The ongoing conflict with Boko Haram and the attacks by predominantly Islamist Fulani shepherds have instilled a feeling of great uncertainty and fear in us Nigerians. We consider each day we live in safety a blessing, because we do not know what will happen the next day. It is very difficult to be a Christian in this part of the world, but our faith encourages us to bravely bear witness to the Gospel.
Today, the persecution of Christians is growing worse in many places. How do the state and civil society deal with the terrorism in Nigeria? Which kinds of aid, measures and strategies are or should be in place?
Christianity is experiencing difficult times all over the world. It is sad that countries that were once trailblazers and were developed on a foundation of Christian values are turning away from the faith. In Nigeria, the state is not putting forth much effort when it comes to the protection and safety of the lives and property of Christians. We citizens, no matter whether we are Christians or Muslims, expect the state to protect us and ensure our safety. This is the only way that people can go about their business without fear or reservations.
How does the Church in Nigeria help the people who are suffering from terrorism and where does it get the support it needs to do this?
In my diocese of Maiduguri, we receive a great deal of solidarity from other dioceses in Nigeria. But the greatest support comes from other countries, in particular from ACN and other organisations. Moreover, several dioceses in the US have helped us by allowing us to personally bear witness in their parishes. Countries such as Hungary have also sent us aid.
How would you describe the relationship between Islamism and Islam? Can and is it necessary for the peaceful majority of Muslims to become more active?
Islamism is a distortion of Islam. The silence of the Islamic majority is disturbing. The people should confront Islamism and denounce it.
What can we do here in Europe to help the hard-pressed and suffering Christians in Nigeria?
First and foremost, pray for us. Secondly, support us financially and make resources available to us so that Christians can continue to keep the faith even in difficult situations. Thirdly, the European governments need to convince our government to strengthen the democratic institutions that promote the rule of law, religious freedom and the freedom of assembly for all.
Nigeria is one of the focal countries for Aid to the Church in Need on the African continent. The pontifical foundation funds a variety of projects, including support for destitute families who have lost family members during terrorist attacks and the rebuilding of church facilities that have been destroyed.