We have received more concern and assistance from people who have no idea where we live than from those who are near to us. This is what creates the conditions for persecution, the feeling that you have no one and no one cares enough.
– Bishop Matthew Hassan KUKAH
Editor’s Note: Over the past 12 months the SMA Communications Department has covered the increasing attacks on Christians in Nigeria and the vocal stance taken by the Nigerian Hierarchy in calling President Muhammad Buhari to account.
Today, with his permission, we are publishing the Keynote Address by the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Dr. Matthew Hassan KUKAH, at a One Day Conference of the Catholic Men’s Guild, Archdiocese of Lagos, held at MUSON Centre, on June 16th, 2018.
It is a substantial read, but well worth the effort. We will publish it in two parts, with part 2 to following in 2 days time:
Christianity lies in achieving greatness in the face of a world’s hatred…
– St Ignatius of Antioch
1. Introductory Remarks
You have asked me to speak on what you refer to as threats to the Christian faith in contemporary Nigeria. I do not wish to assume that we are all on the same page as to intentions, focus and conclusions on this theme that you have chosen. Or are we to assume that the topics and sub themes that you have listed on today’s programme constitute some of these threats already identified? If that is the case, then, given the caliber of speakers that you have assembled, we can assume that my assignment has been made rather redundant.
In fact, in your letter of invitation you have already identified the following as threats to Christianity in contemporary Nigeria: The Nigerian Constitution, Insecurity, Corruption, Unemployment, Social Media and the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN.
I do not wish to anticipate the speakers and what they will be saying because I know that on these themes, there are as many views as there are speakers with different backgrounds and expertise. I understand my role to be merely that of painting some broad strokes across the canvas and believing that the speakers will do justice to the topics.
In this keynote intervention, I will do three things. Firstly, I will speak of persecution as one that has always been part of the life of Christians. Secondly, I will examine the reality of persecution in Nigeria and refer to our own complicity in it, with particular reference to the separation of religion from our public endeavors and to the lack of solidarity among us as a nation. Thirdly, and by way of conclusion, I will suggest that overcoming the persecution of Christians in Nigeria requires primarily that we ignite the fire of our Christian calling.
2. The Christian Faith: Persecution in our DNA
This is not the place to delve into the issues surrounding the historical development of Christianity in Nigeria. However, I think that the organizers of the Conference should have provided for a speaker on the history of Christianity as this would have provided a context for our better understanding and appreciation of the crises that we are in today. Since to be the subject of persecution is in the DNA of the Christian faith and the Christian community, there must and shouldbe a reason.
Since its inception, Christianity has been a persecuted religion. Then as now, it would seem true to say that persecution is a measure of faithfulness to the gospel and teachings of Jesus Christ. Thus, if Christians are not being persecuted, it may mean that they should look at whether and how they are practicing the faith and being faithful to Jesus!
It is helpful to start from the beginning, namely, from the mission statement of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Recall that He summed up His mission and vision in the following words: The spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has sent me to preach the good news to the poor, to bring liberty to captives, to give sight to the blind and to preach the Lord’s year of favour (Lk. 4:18). He told His disciples that they were to expect persecution because; If the world hates you, remember it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own (Jn.15: 18).
Persecution can take many different forms. There is of course the very obvious and painful one of physical harm, torture, imprisonment, death or destruction of properties and livelihoods. Persecution can also be more subtle but in a sense equally painful and destructive, where it is rejected and ridiculed in the political and public space, in both academic and civil society discourse.
Today, the theme of persecution of Christians has resurfaced with a great sense of urgency and intensity around the world. Here, we are not talking of hostile environments like in some parts of Asia and indeed in some localities in our own country, but in many cases, right in the heart of countries and regions that have a historical Christian heritage. We are not speaking here of the persecutors of Christians being outsiders, the traditional enemies of the Christian faith, but internal agencies within the Christian community itself and in states that are nominally Christian.
3. Persecution in Nigeria: our own complicity
Regards the claim that there are flaws in the Nigerian Constitution that constitute or open the way for the persecution of Christians, we must remember that this country has had Constitutional Drafting and Constitutional Reviewing Committees. Have the Chairpersons of these not always all been Christians? Have Christians not been part of the entire process? Of course they have! The unfortunate truth is that Christians in Nigeria have never been able to define a role for themselves in public life. Instead our energies have focused on protecting our regional or ethnic groups, with our Christian identity trailing behind.
Thus, in opening up this topic for discussion and reflection, we should use the opportunity to look back and examine the history of our country, the times when Christians were at the centre of public life. What did we do to become a vulnerable group as we are today? We have to answer, for example, how it is that the Church lost our schools to a criminal state and yet we are unclear about whether or not they should be given back? How did it happen that despite the provisions guaranteeing religious liberty we have been unable to stand together solidarity to either legally or politically challenge these infringements that have now come to haunt Christians in so many parts of our country? So, reflecting on today’s topic should be an opportunity for us to look back, admit our sins of omission and ask whether we may have inadvertently created the conditions for what we have come to refer to as the persecution of Christians in our country.
It is important that we rethink the notion of persecution within the society in which we live and that we appreciate the complex manifestations of persecutions in our society. When looking at persecutions, there is need to address its agency, namely, who does the persecution, when, where and how?
Whenever we talk about the persecution of Christians, our minds go to the killings, the burning of churches, the denials of promotion in the public service to Christians, lack of access to lands for the building of churches and so on. These are violations of human rights and it is in that context that they should be addressed. We lament over such aspects of persecution as the takeover of schools and the non-inclusion of Christians in the bureaucracy and public life in the northern states, but we will not resolve these by merely complaining about them.
Rather we must take them up as human rights issues. Instead of merely hoping that things will change one day when, for example, a Christian becomes Governor or President, we need to awaken a culture that encourages Nigerians to approach the courts for justice. In which case, what we call persecution must be addressed within the larger context of a range of other violations in our society.
An essential question we need to address is why do these persecutions continue today? Let us remember that when we speak of persecution, we are talking about a powerful state, or individual or group, exercising power negatively on a weaker person or institution. In our own case therefore, when we talk of the persecution of Christians in Nigeria, are we not really indicting ourselves? For, how could we be talking of persecution with all the resources that we as Christians have at our disposal? We have a huge number of Christians in public life, we have economic resources, we have the educated manpower in the
bureaucracy, so what is the problem? It is inaction.
To answer this question is to further speak to the lack of clear solidarity and sensitivity that exists in our Churches across the country. In the big cities where wealth generates and creates its own dynamic, we find that we become so comfortable that we become insulated against the trials that persecution produces elsewhere. Our silence, our lack of concern, our obsession with our own comfort and protection create the necessary conditions for the persecution, thus making us complicit in our own suffering. Sadly, I must say that in the last few years we have experienced this in the North of Nigeria with many of our communities destroyed and so many of our rights infringed upon and yet we receive so few visits or concrete shows of solidarity from Catholics in other parts of the country. I have experienced a lethargy among our Catholics in relation to the problems of the last few years that is staggering and embarrassing. We have received more concern and assistance from people who have no idea where we live than from those who are near to us. This is what creates the conditions for persecution, the feeling that you have no one and no one cares enough.
Today, the blood of ethnicity is the defining identity in Nigeria. Hence, when riots break out in northern cities, I often hear my Igbo friends say they are killing Igbos in the north, rather than that they are killing Christians. In the public service, are we not more likely to stand in solidarity with someone who is being victimized because they are from our tribe than the fact that they are from our Church? A big factor in overcoming religious persecution in our country will be when our Christian identity trumps our other identities.
Part 2 will follow in two-days from today’s publishing date, 9 September 2018.