Working towards unification and harmony
In the diocese of Sokoto in northern Nigeria, Bishop Matthew Kukah not only deals with the normal sacramental and pastoral concerns of any diocese. He also has to cope with the violence and regular attacks against the small Christian minority living in the mainly Muslim area.
For many Christians in northern Nigeria, persecution is not just something that happened long ago in the early history of the Church. It’s a reality they live with every day. Christian churches and businesses – as well as the people who frequent them – suffer targeted violence at the hands of Islamist extremists. Many of them wonder “why have they and their institutions become target practice,” says Bishop Kukah.
After the attacks, Christians face many bureaucratic challenges and lack of government support as they struggle to rebuild their communities. While some targets of violence find government aid in rebuilding and accessing services such as schools and hospitals, the state in northern Nigeria merely “looks on” as Christian churches and institutions struggle to rebuild.“Our churches are being bombed with no compensation paid for the schools or other properties of the Church” he said.
The bishop explained that the situation could not be described as a constant state of fear, but rather one of uncertainty. “You don’t know what to expect tomorrow” he said. He added that the violence Christians suffered from Muslim extremists very often is “unprovoked” by the Christian community, but instead occurs as a reaction to events such as unfair elections, economic misfortunes, or international events such as American military actions in Libya or Iraq. Faced with this uncertainty, “Christians have relocated themselves to where they feel safe. Muslims have done the same.”
In addition, both Christian and moderate Muslim communities face attacks from the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, which the Global Terrorism Index named as the world’s deadliest terrorist organization, greater than ISIS. Since 2009, changing government relations and radicalization within Boko Haram have resulted in a dramatic increase in violent attacks against civilian targets, including the 2014 abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibook, Nigeria.
Despite the division and disharmony, Bishop Kukah still hopes that the region can move towards unification, a process that will require “leaders to bring things back together.” He stressed that first step in countering violence is to educate the public to counter projections and prejudices, which “are based on fear” and misunderstanding. Catholic schools play a unique role in achieving this aim.
The In addition, the bishop said, international actors have a role to play in reducing violence throughout northern Nigeria, noting that policies and conflicts around the world bear consequences for Nigeria. He urged the U.S. and other countries to call attention to the persecution faced by Christians and other communities in Nigeria, emphasizing that the opportunity to help those facing violence “is really a call to appreciation of our common humanity.”
However, Bishop Kukah admitted that while international support is important, the solution to violence in Nigeria will ultimately come from within the country. “The primary responsibility of rebuilding our country rests with us.” The government should focus on providing specific, practical solutions. Moving towards peace will require a collective effort, but to Bishop Kukah, it is one worth making.
“As we’re making progress, we’re also assuming responsibility,” he said.