“The problem is bigger than Boko Haram”
Kaduna and Zaria, two towns in the center of Nigeria which lay on the border between the Christian south and Muslim north, have suffered Boko Haram’s bloody attacks. They are also places where, after the 2011 elections, at least 900 Christians were slain. With the recent election of Muslim president Buhari the Christians in Kaduna have been spared a new massacre. But tensions have not subsided.
Priest Elias Kabuk (34), like many other priests in the Archdiocese of Kaduna, speaks from experience. He had been ordained barely two years earlier when Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, was elected president in 2011 and violence ensued. His church and presbytery were set on fire. “I am glad I was not there. The head of a priest was worth a lot,” he says about that time. “Now I go back regularly to visit the faithful and to celebrate Holy Mass with them…outdoors. We don’t have money for a new church yet.”
Kabuk’s grandfather was one of the few in his village who mastered the English language when a Catholic missionary came to the village and needed translation to celebrate the Holy Mass. Soon he and his family converted to the Catholic faith. Grandson Elias was the first to study at the seminary. “From my 87 classmates in the seminary 11 were eventually ordained priests. The others became doctors, lawyers or have gone into business. Catholic education is very important in the development of our country.”
Yet that same education is being challenged, as evidenced by Boko Haram’s numerous attacks on schools and kidnappings of students. Although Christians are targeted more often, Muslim students are also kidnapped and killed. The name Boko Haram means “Western education is sinful.” Archbishop Matthew N’dagoso explains the logic behind the name: “In Nigeria the corrupt elite impoverishes the already poor people. Most of them, even the traditional Muslim rulers, have received Western education. Therefore Islamists reason: ‘If Western education brings corruption, we do not want it.’ It sounds plausible, it just is not correct. It is the power that corrupts the people, not education.”
“The Islamist agenda”
It is surprising to notice how much bigger than Boko Haram the problem is. In Kaduna there are 162 families who fled Boko Haram, but many more who have been victims of local violence. Local Christians talk about an “Islamist agenda.” Fr. Kabuk explains: “The Muslims do not accept that others have the power. This year too there were Muslim leaders who openly threatened with violence if a non-Muslim was chosen president or governor.” In a state where 51% of the population is Christian, this testifies of little democratic ethos. The problem is that, thanks to the hate mongers’ ‘connections’, they are rarely arrested. Yet Archbishop Matthew N’Dagoso remains hopeful. “It is unique in our history how President Goodluck Jonathan accepted his election defeat. When he called Muhammadu Buhari to wish him blessings in his presidency a heavy burden fell off our shoulders. For now there is peace. ”
The future however is far from certain. Further north in the diocese of Zaria, where Christians are in the minority, a visit to the Christians of the indigenous Hausa tribe offers interesting insights. Sameil Amusa was one of the first Muslims in his village to convert to Christianity. He explains: “Until 1987 faith was a free choice. Then the first fanatics came to ask us to become Muslim once again, without coercion at the beginning. If you refused, fine. Then they went to the next village.” Some forty years ago Christians were suddenly marginalized. “We had graduated Christians, but the local leadership chose the illiterate Muslims. Even the relationship with my Muslim relatives has worsened. There is much that binds us, but they keep asking us to become Muslim. Sometimes with violence.”
The old man tells of a boy from the village who wants to remain Christian and now lives in Zaria because he is threatened. Suradjo Hamadu (18) he explains his plight: “My parents converted to Islam. At first I was allowed to remain Christian, but then the imam put them under pressure. One day they threatened that I would be killed if I went to church one more time. When I went anyway, my brothers came after me with sticks and swords. I fled to the house of a Christian family. Through them I came here,” he says at the police barracks where refugees who have fled Boko Haram are gathered. Adama Asuma, a Muslim from Borno State, is one of them. She tells in tears how Boko Haram killed people in her village and she had to run for her life. “I have not heard of my parents for eight months.”
The fact that Muslims are also victims of Boko Haram’s violence, although sour, leaves ajar the door for peace. Bishop George Dodo from Zaria explains: “I remember how Muslims in town cheered after the bombing of the cathedral. They were proud that Boko Haram was fighting for Islam. Now it has turned into a monster that swallows them up.” – both in Zaria and Kaduna, the Church is now in” dialogue” with Muslim leaders.
However, so far this has only concerned the efforts to protect the Christians, not the condemnation of radical Muslims. The archbishop recognizes that this means treating the symptoms, not the cause. “As long as Muslims refuse to treat us as equals, we will not have peace. But now that we meet regularly, Muslim leaders are ashamed to come and give explanations for violence when Christians do not take revenge after an attack. We try to have patience with them, as God had patience with us and came among us at the fulfilled time.” Every day the Christians in Nigeria put this patience into practice in the face of Boko Haram’s violence and the push for an “Islamist agenda”. Every time they turn the other cheek when their family, they or friends are beaten, humiliated and killed, they give a true Christian testimony.