A Syrian and a Nigerian archbishop talk about the situation of Christians in their countries
“If it weren‘t for the Church, we‘d be dead by now.”
At a press conference held in Cologne, Germany last weekend by the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), two archbishops from Nigeria and Syria spoke about the difficult and dramatic situation facing Christians in their respective countries. Archbishop Matthew Man-Oso Ndagoso of the diocese of Kaduna, in northern Nigeria and Maronite Archbishop Joseph Tobji of Aleppo, in Syria, warned about the continuing perils and threats of violence, the many uprooted people and refugees, and even the danger of the extinction of Christianity in their respective regions.
In the case of Syria, even though the so-called “Islamic State” appears almost finished, there are many other like-minded groups still active, Archbishop Tobji warned. While emphasizing that in Syria, and in Aleppo, life was indeed slowly beginning to return to normal and people were beginning to recover new hope, the consequences of the war were still being very strongly felt, he said.
“It is the entire Syrian people who have lost,” the Archbishop observed. “Everywhere, there is poverty, unemployment, unimaginable devastation of people’s homes and of the social and moral fabric of society, together with a sense of hopelessness and mistrust with regard to the future.” In this situation, the support of the Church is particularly important, he insisted, adding his particular thanks for the commitment and generosity of ACN. “Many people in Syria openly acknowledge that if it weren’t for the Church, we’d be dead by now,” he confessed.
Archbishop Tobji also criticized the role of the international community. “It is absolutely clear to everyone,” he insisted, “that the reasons for such a disastrous war as we have endured for seven years now have nothing to do with the demand for democracy or freedom. They have much more to do with a dirty game of world economics.” He maintained that the principal factors were, above all, the arms trade, natural resources such as oil and gas, the importance of the geographical and economic position of the country and opposing world political attitudes. For the world powers, Syria was like a cake to be divided up, with each party wanting the biggest slice, he said.
The dire consequences of emigration
It is above all the younger and better-educated people who have left Syria on account of the war and the lack of future prospects, the Archbishop pointed out, adding that the consequences of this emigration are very dire. The number of Christians in Syria had now fallen to one third, he said, and while the internal refugees were now slowly returning
home, those who have moved abroad were staying put.
Similarly, in northern Nigeria, thousands of people have now fled the violence, intimidation and oppression. The Christians here are exposed not only to the attacks by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, but also to a systematic discrimination by the regional state, according to Archbishop Matthew Mano-Oso Ndagoso of Kaduna.
Nigeria is the only country in the world in which the population is more or less evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, with Christians the majority in the south and Muslims the majority in the north, Archbishop Matthew explained, adding that his own diocesan city of Kaduna is a particularly important centre of Islam in Nigeria.
Nigeria – where Christian religious education is banned in some places
In some of the federal states of northern Nigeria, moreover, Islamic sharia law has now been introduced, and in some of the northern Nigerian provinces, Christian religious education is no longer allowed in the schools, whereas Islamic religious education is supported and Islamic teachers of religion officially employed by the state are paid out of public funds. Even mosques are being funded with public monies, whereas Christians are being refused plots of land on which to build churches, the Archbishop complained.
Archbishop Ndagoso is therefore calling for the Christian minority in the north to be given “fair treatment, based on justice and an honest approach towards one another, regardless of religious confession, tribal identity, political affiliation and social status. The Christians of Nigeria are calling for their fundamental human rights and freedoms to be honoured and respected throughout the country,” he added.
Archbishop Ndagoso also praised the support and solidarity offered by the international Catholic pastoral charity ACN, which “has always been there for our people in times of need.” Owing to the insecurity of the situation, even some of the bishops had not dared to venture into the north of Nigeria, he said. ACN was a “voice,” he added, that was giving audible expression on the international stage to the fears, anxieties and needs of the persecuted Christian minority in Nigeria.
This is why it is urgently necessary to show our solidarity with persecuted Christians around the world, said Berthold Pelster, ACN’s human rights expert, summarizing the situation at the press conference which was organized by the German branch of ACN. “In the past 30 or 40 years or so, we have seen the advance of intolerant religious ideologies, above all in parts of the Islamic world,” he said. “Following the upheavals in the Arab world since 2011, we have seen the growth of extreme forms, and meanwhile radical Islamist ideas have also been spreading increasingly on the African continent,” he added.
It is therefore crucial, he believes, to draw the attention of world public opinion again and again to the abuses against the basic right to religious freedom. For the persecuted and oppressed Christians, it is a source of a special strength in their faith to know they have not been abandoned in their need by the universal Church.
For many years now, ACN has been documenting the persecution of Christians worldwide and monitoring the situation of religious freedom in 196 countries around the world. The charity and pontifical foundation publishes its findings in a global report every other year, the only NGO to regularly do so (religious-freedom-report.org). The next global report on religious freedom will be published in the autumn of this year. In 2017, a Report dedicated to the situation of the persecuted Christians was released. Persecuted and Forgotten highlights the challenges endure by Christians in 13 countries.