According to a news report from Agenzia Fides [the news agency of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, responsible for the missionary work of the Church] Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, Nigeria, has stated that “the situation is still confusing and the information on the number of people affected is still incomplete“.
The Archbishop was speaking following the two car bombs which exploded on Tuesday, 20 May, in the main market of Jos, a city in central Nigeria. It is reported that at least 118 people died as a result of the attack by Boko Haram.
“Before the explosions, ethnic and religious divisions were trying to be dealt with among the different components of our society. Let me give an example: Two weeks ago we launched a fundraising campaign to build the new cathedral, given that the current one is too small to accommodate the faithful who attend the celebrations. We also invited Muslim leaders to attend the ceremony and we appreciated their presence. This is a clear demonstration of the progress made in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims”.
“We are all worried, but dialogue continues and we are in touch with Muslim leaders. In fact Muslim leaders in Kaduna informed me that there had been a series of explosions in Jos. We should not be intimidated and we must continue our dialogue of peace”, says the Archbishop.
The day before the bombings Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja, issued a letter speaking of the ‘painful dilemma of dialogue with Boko Haram’.
Jos and the central part of Nigeria was first evangelised by French SMA missionaries who came to Shendam in 1907. Even before that, from 1884, when the SMA established a mission in Lokoja the Catholic Church has been present. Since that time the seed planted by the French and, later, Irish SMAs, has borne much fruit. Nigeria today has its own cardinals, bishops, priests and religious. Not only that but there are many Nigerian missionaries working all over the world.
There are 40 Nigerian SMA priests on mission in many parts of Africa as well as in Europe and USA. Two of them lead the SMA teams in Nigeria (Fr Augustine Onwuzurike) and South Africa (Fr Pius Afiabor).
Fr Derry O’Connell works in St Louis parish in Jos, about a mile from where the bomb attacks took place. He and Fr Anthony Fevlo SMA (from Ghana) who is PP of St Joseph’s, Vom are the last SMAs to work in the Archdiocese of Jos after a presence of 107 years. But the torch has been handed on- we already have three priests from Jos as well as three seminarians studying for the priesthood with the SMA.
Though the atrocities of Boko Haram are gaining Nigeria an unenviable reputation at present it must be remembered that, for many years, there has been a ‘low intensity’ level of violence against Christians in this part of Nigeria. It is mainly due to water and grazing rights for cattle and other animals.
Earlier this month the people of Kachia in the southern part of Kaduna State, where Fr John Haverty SMA is PP, had many of their homes and businesses razed to the ground by members of the Hausa and Fulani community. These people have settled in this mainly Christian area of Southern Kaduna and are engaged in cattle rearing or trading.
The actual spark for the destruction was the building of a wall around a prayer ground by the Muslim community. This wall blocked a right of way for the local people. When they refused to allow access the locals demolished the wall and when it was rebuilt, it was demolished again. In retaliation, some of the Hausa community attacked Christian-owned homes and businesses when the owners were at church services.
Following the intervention of the Army two Christians were killed. A full 24 hour curfew was imposed but that has now been lifted. Students had to sneak through the bush to get to the school – established by Fr Haverty – so that they could sit for their State exams. An uneasy peace rests over the area at present. This is but one example of the violence that Christians are enduring on an ongoing basis in central and northern Nigeria.
This violence has little to do with religion but is rooted in the issue of land ownership and that of the right of settlers to be considered indigenes of the area.