An intervention of His Excellency Rev. Mons. John Ebebe AYAH, Bishop of Ogoja (NIGERIA) at The Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Faith
CHRISTIAN WITNESS IN THE FACE OF TERRORISM (BOKO HARAM): THE NIGERIAN EXPERIENCE
Greetings to the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI and to the Synod Fathers in this gracious year of Faith!
I am glad to share with you the joys and anxieties of the Nigerian Church in recent times as she struggles to witness to Christ in the face of terrorism popularly known as Boko Haram. The situation of terrorism in Nigeria challenges the Nigerian Christian to a particular and deeper reflection and commitment in his or her faith. It demands the Nigerian Christian moves beyond Church attendance and celebration of the Eucharist to Practical Christian witness that expresses true faith in our Lord Jesus who became the saviour of the world through the Cross, death and resurrection. Generally, this situation of terrorism which we find ourselves demands from us an appreciation of the value of martyrdom which the Church holds in high esteem and is also considered as the highest proof of love which conforms to the image of Christ as the suffering Master and Saviour. This is an opportunity for us to be better prepared to confess Christ before the men and women of our time, demonstrating in practical terms our readiness to defend our Faith and leaving a legacy for posterity while following Christ along the way of the Cross through the persecutions and violence which we suffer and must bear.
Persecution produces either of two reactions: it sharpens the faith of the believer to commitment or it threatens the faith of the believer to withdrawal from witnessing to the Christ (Truth) publicly. In the circumstances of Boko Haram (An Islamic fundamentalist group in Nigeria which accuses Western Education to be evil in need of elimination) constitutes one of the challenges that Christians in Nigeria, especially those in the Northern part that has this monster (Boko Haram) as its birth place, have continued to face. The undaunted spirit of Christians, the unwavering faith and witnessing which these Christians display in the face of threats to life and property is a sign of their ardent faith. This is real witnessing which the gospel calls for. The pews in the Church have not been left completely empty. Unity which Christians are known has been strengthened because all Christians without denominational prejudices have come to recognize the necessity and urgency to defend themselves against their common enemy: Boko Haram.
As the Universal Church celebrates the year of the faith, the Catholic Church in Nigeria considers it, as the Pope hinted, the period of ‘grace’ to withstand and deepen her faith and witnessing even the more in the situations of terrorism. It is the concern of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria that, “the declaration of the year of the Faith and the celebration of the Synod on New
Evangelization provides the opportunity for renewal of faith in the lord Jesus, invigorate the enthusiasm to proclaim the Good News through personal and communal conversion and grow in holiness.” The task of every Christian which the Sacrament of baptism imposes can be summarised by: witness, ministry and fellowship; these are strongly supported in biblical context as the Greek New Testament indicates; Martyrion, diakonia, and koinonia. From the Nigerian perspective, we can say that the New Evangelization we inaugurate and in this special year of the Faith, the Nigerian Christians are called in a special way to be bold to express their Faith.
The objective of this terrorist group is claimed to be an agitation for the Islamization of Nigeria.
Nigeria, blessed with the population of over 160, 000, 000 has roughly equal percentages of the two major religions: Christianity and Islam. The leadership of the Catholic Church in Nigeria has had course to appeal to the consciences of good men and women in Nigeria to combat the “enemy” called terrorism by true Christian witness. In her report for this Synod, she notes that, “... as a local Church, we are challenged to live the Christian witness of selfless and forgiving love of our Divine Master. We are working together with men and women of goodwill to embark on the process of healing and reconciliation.” In fact, the government of Nigeria appears helpless to tackle terrorism. No doubt, it has given its citizens the impression that, all shall be over because there are concerted efforts to stem the tide of this violence and persecution.
There are insinuations to discountenance the claim that Boko Haram is an Islamic sect. Although the Sect has vehemently pronounced war on Christians but Muslims too have not been spared in this crisis. While the leadership of the Islamic religion in Nigeria continues to disassociate itself from this terrorist group, the sect insists that it is doing a legitimate, religious duty in the name of Islam and for Allah. Because this Militancy does not spare even the Muslims, it has been seen by many analysts as a Socio-political arrangement using the vehicle of religion. Be that as it may, one thing is inevitable Christians and Christian institutions have been their main targets. Hence, it is a form of persecution on the Christians.
Generally, the Catholic Church in Nigeria has refused to maintain that Boko Haram is an instrument used by Muslims to incite Christians to religious war. Although, some religions are more prone to fundamentalism and extremism, it is the submission of the Catholic Church in Nigeria to emphasize the urgency of this New Evangelization through dialogue, proper Catechesis and education in order to have a balanced faith. This will help in imbibing the values of conversion, brotherhood, service and reconciliation. It is also our hope that, we would aspire to explore new approaches to evangelization. The new approaches will touch the horizons of new communication technologies where many of our youths spend most of their time. We hope to meet them there bringing the Good News of Salvation that Christ offers. Considering this medium for evangelization is very relevant because the modern man seems to be dominated by technology. It is important to meet him there to liberate communication technology of its odds and rescue man from its grip so that everything will be worthy of being offered to the glory of God and the sanctification of humanity.
Given our peculiar situation of political leadership which is accused of corruption and selfishness provoking criminality and violence in high and low places, the New Evangelization must truly as the Supreme Pontiff, Benedict XV1 proposes, calls one and all to Reflection, Conversion and Reconciliation. The New Evangelization which necessarily begins with Christ and through Him calls for cooperation, dialogue and prayer. The Catholic Church in Nigeria needs peace to grow and flourish. To overcome terrorism and foster a just and peaceful coexistence in the human community, we need to constantly dialogue with political and traditional leaderships as well as leaderships of other religions and religious groups. We, the Christian leaders in Nigeria are willing to support initiatives and programs that encourage peaceful coexistence and religious tolerance and respect for human life.
Furthermore, to foster peaceful coexistence in our local communities and assure everyone the confidence of security, this New Evangelization, we pray and hope, will include the urgency of security of human life and property which God bestows on us in His gratuitous love. The desire to be security conscious is borne out of the desire to defend and promote life which terrorism undermines. This aspect of security which we seem to have neglected is more urgent and will only be fruitful if there exists in us the desire to love God and serve Him in our neighbour, making ourselves our ‘brother’s keepers.’
Finally, we believe that a good family upbringing leads to a good community life. The many violence and actions of terrorism which we face maybe a conglomeration of many causes but the basic cause is disconnect in family morals. Obviously, this Synod on New Evangelization demands that we take evangelization to the family which is the Cell of the Society. This can help in no small way to imbibing the Christian values in a manner that last and can help to face the challenges of the faith. Indeed, we are passing through a turbulent period that needs prayer, hard work and reconciliation.
At the concluding Mass of the World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid, the Holy Father, Benedict XV1 spoke to the audience on the relevance of communicating the Faith. “It is not possible to find Christ and not tell others about Him.... The world needs the testimony of your Faith.” These words are profound and make a special resonance in our ears, because how can we not give testimony with our lives about the Christ who lives and acts in our midst? We believe that the strength of our Faith and the grace of God will inflame our hearts to forge ahead in communicating Christ the Truth of our salvation even in the situations of persecutions and terrorism which we will not fail to face and which indeed we face.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria prays (with Holy Mother the Church) fervently for universal peace but more specifically for peace in Nigeria. As the Universal Church celebrates the year of Faith, the Conference also calls on the Faithful to observe the following:
(A) That we Catholics exercise patience in our dealings with those who oppose and fight against our interests.
(B) That we do not resort to violence (even in retaliation) in the same manner that we are attacked.
(C) That we continue to talk peace to our detractors, seeking meaningful and mature ways of dialoguing that can bring about lasting peace and concord, with time.
(D) That our efforts at working toward dialogue and peace should not be interpreted as weakness, but rather as a sign of strength which comes from the Lord Jesus, who is our Resurrection and Life.
(E) That we promote sound Catechesis at home within the family for proper education and good upbringing of our children.
(F) That the Faithful engage in prayer programs and frequent the Sacraments, especially Sacramental Confession and reception of the Eucharist.
Finally, we commend our every effort for peace in the hands of our Blessed Mother, the Mediatrix of all graces. We pray for God’s blessings on our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI and for success in the Synod proceedings.
BISHOP JOHN AYAH
CATHOLIC BISHOPS’ CONFERENCE OF NIGERIA
''The truth might be hard to say, painful to bear or even drastic for the truth sayer but still needed to be said''. ALISON.