Catholic Vancouver June 11, 2018

‘There has never been a peaceful moment’: Nigerian bishop  

By Agnieszka Ruck

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, Nigeria, visited Vancouver June 7-8 to discuss the persecution and violence facing Christians. (Photos by Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

In the 23 years since Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama became a bishop, he has not taken one day off from promoting dialogue and peace between Christians and Muslims.

“If there is anybody who should be advocating a violent response to Muslim attacks, it should be me,” he told The B.C. Catholic June 7. “I have experienced it in my ethnic group and from my work as a priest. I should know. My people have died in front of me.”

In 2014, the world was shocked when more than 270 girls from the primarily Christian Nigerian town of Chibok were kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram, forced to convert, and held for ransom.

It wasn’t an isolated incident, and violence, terrorism, and corruption are still daily realities in Nigerian communities. In January, a mass funeral was held for 72 people killed during a fight between what appeared to be mostly Muslim cattle herders and mainly Christian farmers on New Year’s Day. About three months later, 19 Christians were killed when gunmen opened fire at Mass and set fire to about 50 homes in a remote village. Among the dead were two priests.

“It has always been a challenge. There has never been a peaceful moment.”

But despite his anger, Archbishop Kaigama says violence will only lead to more violence. So, since his ordination at the age of 36, he has been promoting peace and interreligious dialogue. “Either we do something, or we perish together.”

Archbishop Kaigama with Father Gary Franken, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Vancouver.

The work has been incredibly difficult. The Archbishop of Jos said his people have been “allergic” to the concept of dialogue and feel as though talking with perpetrators means letting them off the hook.

He remembers when suicide bombers attacked a church in his archdiocese in 2012. It was a Sunday, the church had been full, and 14 were killed in the explosion.

“Everybody was so angry. They said: ‘Let’s fight. Let’s kill.’ They wanted the bishop to give the word. Everybody was very angry. They were even angry with the police and security agents. They felt betrayed.”

When Archbishop Kaigama arrived at the scene, a local police commissioner stuck by his side, fearing the angry crowd.

“I could still see the remnants of the terrorists, the building was still on fire, there was smoke still there. So what do you do? Ask them to fight? They will begin to kill innocent passersby, anyone who looks like a Muslim,” he said.

“So, I told them: ‘Look, I am more angry than anybody here. If I had to do something, I would do something worse than any of you here. But what would we make of our religion? What is the core of our religion? Let us recite the Our Father.”

He continued: “There are 14 people dead now. If I say ‘fight,’ by tomorrow, we’ll have 50 or 100 dead, on both sides. So, who will gain?”

In 10 years, Archbishop Kaigama has not held a Eucharistic procession on the feasts of Corpus Christi (or Christ the King), worried it would take only one Muslim unhappy with the procession to throw a stone and a bloodbath would start in the streets.

“A small thing, even a small problem, even just the young people could be angry about something, (but) if they start fighting and one is a Christian and one is a Muslim, it becomes a Christian-Muslim fight. People can die for that.”

Archbishop Kaigama with Father Franken and Aid to the Church in Need members Mario Bard and Marie-Claude Lalonde. ACN has reported that Christian persecution in Nigeria has risen to "extreme" levels."

Government officials seem too preoccupied by their own interests (bishops in Nigeria have publicly called for president Muhammadu Buhari to resign), and even local police and military can’t control the situation, said Archbishop Kaigama. When he was the bishop of Jalingo, he was often called by soldiers to help them deescalate a situation.

“Soldiers would come to beg me to go to a crisis area to talk to the people. Their guns had failed them, and they said they would give me protection, lead me, so I could talk and pray.”

When he was ordained the Archbishop of Jos in 2000, he thought he was going to “take a good sabbatical,” but soon found the situation there was even more dramatic. “Whether I liked it or not, I had to be involved. It wasn’t a choice at all. I never studied anything to do with Islam or dialogue or justice issues.”

In this tense climate, Archbishop Kaigama seeks ways to promote peace between Christians and Muslims. He has befriended local Muslim chiefs and opened a school where members of both faiths can get a free education in building or carpentry while learning how to get along.

“They are eating together, learning together, and they try to be friends and cultivate the discipline of sitting down when there is a problem, rather than taking a bow and arrow or a gun,” he said. “So, at least if in one village there is a crisis, and someone is able to say: ‘let’s reason, let’s talk’ – it’s better than nothing.”

He added that while he does not encourage his flock to fight, he does tell them Christians are not to stand by if their families are being slaughtered.

Archbishop Kaigama celebrates Mass - his first in Canada - at a small chapel in Vancouver June 8.

“If somebody comes to attack your family, you have a right to defend your children, your wife, your husband. If they are attacking your church, also, you have the same right to use the instruments you have to protect your church,” he said.

“But do not wait for your bishop to say: ‘Let’s go and buy 2,000 different types of guns and buy bullets.’ That is impossible. That is not my work. When I do that, I fail.”

The Muslim chief who invites Archbishop Kaigama to his home for dinner, the young graduates from the interfaith school, and others, give him hope that peace is possible.

“We have some Muslims who reason and who condemn violence. I call them candlelight. The difference between electricity and candlelight is clear! But a candle is enough to give a little bit of light.”

Archbishop Kaigama visited Vancouver for two days on a trip sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need, a pontifical charity for Catholics suffering poverty or persecution.

In a 2015-2017 report, ACN said the situation of Christians in Nigeria has worsened and the persecution they face is “extreme.” It added that the Kafanchan Diocese (one of Nigeria’s 55 dioceses) reported 988 people killed, 2,712 homes destroyed, and 20 churches attacked from 2011-2017.

Archbishop Kaigama, a first-time visitor to Canada, celebrated Mass and gave a speech at the John Paul II Pastoral Centre in Vancouver June 8 before also travelling to Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal.

Archbishop Kaigama shows Father Franken a book he published on the work of the church in Nigeria.