Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference, has launched an appeal to the international community to tackle the problem of terrorism at its roots.
In an interview with ZENIT Wednesday, the Archbishop of Jos addresses the scourge of the Islamist group Boko Haram, warning that if the global community fails to root out the group’s violence, “religious terrorism will continue to spread not only beyond Nigeria to other parts of Africa.”
He also calls on the Nigerian government to improve its intelligence gathering, and for “good Christians and good Muslims” to continue their efforts in dialogue to “enhance trust and harmony among all Nigerians irrespective of tribe or religion.”
Boko Haram continues to kill and cause thousands to flee, whether Christian or Muslim. Its attacks have now spread across the border into Cameroon.
ZENIT: Could you describe the actual situation taking place in Nigeria?
Archbishop Kaigama: Nigeria is calm for now. Apparently, the burning issue is still the insecurity especially in the Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States. There is the usual panic in the air of possible attacks, while the North-East is under a state of emergency imposed by the government to flush out extremist groups. Attacks and killings have been going on especially in those areas, affecting Christians, Muslims and traditional worshippers. The Nigerian security agents are determined to bring an end to terrorism in the North Eastern part of Nigeria but it appears the Boko Haram are also equally determined to achieve their goal of forcing their religious beliefs on Nigerians by violence means rather than by witness and gentle persuasion.
ZENIT: Please describe the current state of the Christian community there? What are the needs of the people?
Archbishop Kaigama: There are attacks on communities, where both Christians and Muslims have lived together over decades. The Christians are not giving up the practice of their religion because some persons want them to do so. Religion means a lot to Nigerians and, in the midst of multi-dimensional challenges, religion remains a comforting balm. We are talking of civilized religions which aim at creating societal harmony and preparing people in holiness with a view to eternal life.
Christians who have been attacked need spiritual comfort and to be reassured of God’s presence. We prayerfully hope that God will bring these attacks to an end someday. Materially, many have lost houses, means of livelihood and dear ones, while many affected are traumatized. They need rehabilitation both in the material and spiritual sense. The Bishop of Maiduguri Diocese, Mons. Oliver Doeme, can testify that his minor seminary has been shut due to a Boko Haram attack and how the Augustinian Sisters in the area had to relocate with their novices because their convent and their clinic had been attacked.
ZENIT: According to you what must the Church, government, organizations, etc. do to help?
Archbishop Kaigama: The Church is a beacon of hope. She helps within her limited resources to provide charitable and humanitarian services. She encourages ceaseless prayer and the virtues of love and forgiveness. She assures members that Christ is still with them. She promotes interreligious dialogue and insists on peaceful means to resolve crises. The Catholic Church in Nigeria has organized a six-month prayer event at the family, parish, diocesan levels, culminating with a national prayer pilgrimage in November, bringing Catholics from all parts of Nigeria to pray for Nigeria and especially for the conversion of heart of the evildoers. The government has the bigger role of ensuring that lives and property are protected, which is the first constitutional responsibility of any government. They should provide much more than humanitarian needs, but also defend the territory of the nation, eliminating all forms of aggression on the state. Organizations have the task of collaborating with the Church and the government, creating some synergy, helping to build trust, peace, co-existence etc. Concerted efforts must be made to cripple the source of funding, training and acquisition of sophisticated equipment by the terrorists.
ZENIT: You have been fearless in going out no matter how dangerous conditions. Don’t you feel threatened? Do you expect other priests to do the same as you?
Archbishop Kaigama: I am a human being so I feel fear, but most times a force beyond me moves me on. I just get inspired in the face of such turbulence to give hope, be a voice and reassure that God has not abandoned us. People need guidance at such moments. I do encourage my priests to be with their people in their parishes; fortunately, at no point has any of my priests fled leaving the people alone. Jesus never left the sheep, so we need to be by them. Pope Francis reminded recently that the shepherd should smell like the sheep, and this is what we try to do. We try to care for our flock, yet mindful of the dangers of violence unleashed on innocent people and so must be prudent by not putting ourselves deliberately in harm’s way. Since Monday all the priests, Sisters and selected lay leaders have been gathered for our usual annual one-week General Assembly to interact, share experience and encourage one another to remain strong, faithful and close to our people. We are concluding our assembly with a priestly ordination tomorrow, Friday, in a rural parish as a way of encouraging the rural parishioners who have suffered attacks in the past that we are all together.
ZENIT: You have said that Boko Haram is evil, can you discuss your ‘‘Dialogue for Life’’ and whether dialogue according to you could ever effectively counter the evil of these terrorists.
Archbishop Kaigama: Dialogue is possible where both parties are willing to meet face to face, address issues with charity and maturity. Boko Haram does not come out clearly, so we do not even know who they are. Dialogue is not possible with people who appear from time to time on internet or whose impact is felt only after a terrible damage has been done and perhaps they are killed along with their victims in the process. We are already talking with Muslims who, like their Christian counterparts, are patriotic, moderate, in their religious views and well-disposed to civilized social interaction. Dialogue of life is a powerful tool to help us get out of the web of violence. Dialogue is a better option than violence. It is cheaper than hostility.
ZENIT: Is there an appeal you would like to launch?
Archbishop Kaigama: Our government should heighten intelligence gathering; ensure effective utilization of funds allocated to combat terrorism; ensure that the security agents are well motivated, well equipped and when some lose their lives, their families are well catered for and treated with dignity.
The majority of good Christians and good Muslims must continue being good and doing practical things to enhance trust and harmony among all Nigerians irrespective of tribe or religion.
The international community should not just help one religious group against the other; rather, help Nigeria tackle the problem of terrorism at the roots by using their experience, expertise and material resources to stop this menace. Failing to do this, religious terrorism will continue to spread not only beyond Nigeria to other parts of Africa, but indeed it will engulf the international community. We are doing our best to foster peace and encourage the culture of dialogue. It would be helpful if those with material means could help encourage our Dialogue, Peace and Reconciliation Centre, established in Jos for proactive initiatives for enduring peace. The centre has done so much already by bringing different groups together to talk and reason together. The Catholic archdiocese of Jos also has a vocational school where Muslim and Christian youths are admitted and study together for two years, learning vocational skills and the culture of dialogue and therefore becoming agents of peace in their villages rather than engaging in hostile confrontation at the slightest or sometimes no provocation. All these initiatives need support and even replication in as many places as possible.