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from issue no. 12 - 2011


Terrorism come from afar

The Archbishop of Abuja analyzes the situation of the country after the attacks on churches and reflects on the roots of the Boko Haram group: the culture of these terrorists is not Nigerian. The Catholic Church, which wants peace and harmony, is a victim of a mad project aiming to divide the country in order to appropriate the natural resources

by John O. Onaiyekan Archbishop of Abuja

by John O. Onaiyekan Archbishop of Abuja

by John O. Onaiyekan Archbishop of Abuja

What is happening in my country and who is to blame? There is no information that we can describe as exact on those responsible for the massacre at Christmas in the parish of Saint Theresa, in Madalla, near Abuja. Those who have claimed responsibility for the massacre, boasting of it before God, are the so-called Boko Haram group, faceless people, whose ideology is that of those involved in international terrorism, and who cloak themselves in Islamic fanaticism. But it is a variegated group, with conflicting interests. There are those who say that some of them have had experience in training camps with the Taliban and al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan and north Pakistan. They go along with the extremists who, unfortunately in Nigeria also, imagine an application of Sharia law including the cutting off of hands and the stoning of adulteresses. They are a minority, but are causing great trouble and we think unfortunately that the moment has come when it will trigger a chain reaction in Nigeria, after years in which we hoped and wished that this phenomenon could be reabsorbed, just by applying the law and negotiating.


I repeat that the culture of these extremists is not Nigerian, but that of international terrorism. And whatever role is there for Islam in this framework?

We know that the relationship between Church and Islam in Africa is not homogenous. In many countries coexistence works, even if unsettled by acts against peace caused by so-called Islamists. In the north of our continent, as in the Middle East, the small Christian minorities in totally Muslim countries endeavor to find a balance of coexistence. In Nigeria, it is not the case of a small Christian minority, but of numerical equality with Islam; and there is no way to avoid self-destruction other than mutual recognition and substantive equality. With this, I’m merely reporting what any Muslim Nigerian would accept: and I know it’s true. Christians and Muslims we live in our institutional and social balance, and in daily life you wouldn’t be able to tell whether someone – member of the establishment or market tradesman – were of the Islamic or Christian faith. It’s only these terrorist acts that point a finger at the difference. Those people are right who speculate about the intentions of the so-called Boko Haram group, whose purpose is exactly to provoke the armed reaction of the Christians, and thus chaos and the end of Nigeria as we know it today. To achieve this they’re also betting on the division among the Christians.


Different denominations come under the generic term ‘Ni­gerian Christians’. Our Catholic community wholeheartedly follows what the Church of Rome suggests to us – and does not order – in the field of religious dialogue, convinced that this is the only way to bring peace to the country, even if other Protestant groups think differently and criticize us, some going painfully as far as denigrating Islam as such, associating it outright with the Boko Haram group. We find it difficult to go along with these Christian hardliners, they don’t want to dialogue and they ‘provoke’ the extremists, to the point where their reaction isn’t slow in coming: that’s how, for example, bombs end up exploding in front of a Catholic church on Christmas Day. Against us, who have done everything to seek for the religious harmony of our country, and can do nothing but continue to tell the truth.


Outside or inside our country there are those who might criticize the frankness with which we turn to our Nigerian Muslims. We don’t feel any contradiction between dialogue and the request to the leaders of Nigerian Islam to isolate the terrorists who have infiltrated their communities. We don’t have the stumbling block of ‘political correctness’ because of the inherent sincerity that we have for one another. The Muslim leaders are well aware that the so-called Boko Haram group has claimed both Muslim and Christian victims. They can’t say that the problem of so-called Muslim terrorists does not touch them. On Christmas Day in Madalla Muslims also died. Equally frankly we say that there is no possibility of violent reprisals by the Catholics. We are aware that it is the central government, first of all, that has the power and responsibility to protect its citizens.


The church of Saint Theresa, in Madalla (near Abuja, the capital of Nigeria), where a car bomb explosion killed twenty-five people during Christmas Mass, on 25 December 2011. The Boko Haram fundamentalist group claimed responsibility for the attack [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

The church of Saint Theresa, in Madalla (near Abuja, the capital of Nigeria), where a car bomb explosion killed twenty-five people during Christmas Mass, on 25 December 2011. The Boko Haram fundamentalist group claimed responsibility for the attack [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

It is wrong to think that the rivalry between Christians and Muslims is an inseparable part of the game. The country belongs to all of us, Christians and Muslims, citizens of a wealthy oil exporting country, where the hypothesis of separation between north and south is totally unfeasible. When you hear someone making the case for two States, Islamic north and Christian south, along the lines of Sudan, you know they’re lying or don’t understand. The reality is that there are Christians who not only live in the north, alongside the Muslim Hausa-Fulani, but also originate in the north, while almost fifty percent of my Yoruba ethnic group, traditionally southern, is composed of Muslims. So, where do we draw the line on which to build our trenches, if someone leads us to fighting?

Striking the Catholic Church means striking those who want harmony, it means seeking chaos and imposing violent fractures on our religions, Christianity and Islam: because the ‘more orthodox’ on each side will accuse their co-religionists who open up to dialogue of weakness.

The religious conflict hides another truth. The struggles have tribal, political and economic origins – also linked to the unequal redistribution of oil wealth, accompanied by massive unemployment – and are tied up with the semi-failure of the central government to act, whose electoral legitimacy was until recently challenged in the courts. The current president is a Christian, who came into office by breaking the traditional alternation of a Muslim and a Christian president. The political leadership of the country is divided into factions that do not seem to know where to lead us. Let us hope they reach an agreement, and that the government cooperates with the opposition and does not come to terms with the terrorists.


These are now all known to everybody as Boko Haram, which in the Hausa language means ‘Western education is an abomination’. It is yet another definition aimed at enhancing the sense of the clash of civilizations. But this type of education has never been imposed, neither by the English colonists, nor by the Nigerian governments that have followed on one another for fifty years now, including those that came out of the traditionally Muslim north. None of us are obliged to accept this educational or social model. In Nigeria, there is no imposition, and everyone can also have the religious education they want.

Boko Haram is based on the error – that it is spreading – of linking the Church to a culture. It is a worldwide misunderstanding. Not too long ago I was invited to a conference in Madrid on the theme of confrontation between Islam and the West. Those gentlemen held a conference based on the assumption that Christianity was Western and hostile to Islam; so I asked them where I was supposed to sit, since I wasn’t Western nor Muslim, but Nigerian and Christian. Perhaps the ‘representatives of the West’ at that conference were resentful of my statements. Moreover, they themselves were not willing to defend Christianity, while the Islamic representatives discussed only religion... In short, the Church was trapped in a suffocating vice.


The United Nations Headquarters in Abuja, devastated by the attack on 26 August 2011 which killed 18 people. The Boko Haram fundamentalist group claimed responsibility also for that bloodshed [© Getty Images]

The United Nations Headquarters in Abuja, devastated by the attack on 26 August 2011 which killed 18 people. The Boko Haram fundamentalist group claimed responsibility also for that bloodshed [© Getty Images]

Those who use the expression Boko Haram are knowingly using a slogan to reinforce a popular stereotype and pollute the collective imagination even more. Moreover, in reality, the group carrying out the attacks originally gave itself a name in Arabic, which refers generically, as it does for other groups, to the jihad, and not ‘Western education is an abomination’. Others have subsequently applied this label. But while these criminals spread the word of Boko Haram with violence, their leaders have all had ‘Western’ education and some in the West itself. In Nigeria you get nowhere without ‘western education’: for example, you can’t be a career officer in the Nigerian army without it. Supporters of Boko Haram blatantly staged a bonfire in public burning their university degrees, calling them ‘useless and harmful’. But here we are faced with the irrational, with people who I’d say had been brainwashed, people with whom it is hard to even talk.


Our Catholic community is at peace with everyone. The Church has definitively announced itself in favor of religious freedom, so removing any possible misunderstanding. The Church of our Second Vatican Council, furthermore, has not been afraid of or shunned modernity, it knows how to understand and embrace it, it has given us the means to support dialogue with the world.

We can’t accept religious freedom half-heartedly, with a ‘yes, but...’, because it would mean denying someone’s liberty, including our own.

The teachings of the Council are a heritage that allows us to live together, in the world and among different religions, which may not yet have that heritage and are striving to find in their own theologies supportive justifications to achieve the relationship with modernity. It is true for my Muslim friends as for myself that in the Koran, as in the Bible, anyone can find passages that interpretation can shape into a justification of intolerance and violence. In the Book of Judges God comes with His host to vanquish the heathen...! But the Lord wants us to live in peace in this world and recognize him as Father. And no one must be forced: anyone who wishes to become a Muslim is free to do so, and the same for those who want to remain Christian. And the State is the guarantor that this be done peacefully. This is my freedom of religion: I am a Christian by the grace of God, but that does not mean that this grace is always given or to everyone. There is no compulsion in faith. Here in Nigeria we very often quote a splendid sura from the Koran: “Had God wanted, He would have made us all Muslims”.



(Text assembled by Giovanni Cubeddu, revised by the author)

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