WASHINGTON, D.C. — A priest who serves as director of the Justice, Development and Peace Commission in his diocese in northern Nigeria cited an ongoing series of religious freedom violations in his region of the country, which is majority Muslim.

The violations include land grabs, the denial of permits to build churches, economic exclusion, the denial of access to certain fields of study in the area’s colleges, political deprivations and even the extortion of government retirees’ pension benefits, according to Father Joseph Bature Fidelis of the Diocese of Maiduguri, Nigeria.

The political deprivations, primarily access to government jobs, results in Christians in the region becoming “second-class citizens,” Fidelis told Catholic News Service during a March 9 interview in Washington, where he was traveling on a trip sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need.

For Christians who are retiring from government service, other government employees whose job it is to process pension benefits have refused to process them unless the retiree “pays a tax” — payable to the employee, Fidelis said. “No tax, no pension,” he added.

The denial of certain college courses to Christians not only hampers them from obtaining the education needed to obtain well-paying careers, it keeps them from being equal partners in Nigerian society, Fidelis said.

This has caused Christians to head to the southern regions of Nigeria, which has a heavier concentration of Christians. This makes the denial of church construction permits less of an issue.

“If you have no people, you don’t need more churches,” Fidelis said.

But the land-grab issue is a sore point. Fulani Muslims, he said, have put in bids with the federal government for an estimated 3,000 tracts of land in the country. “The Fulani are just one Muslim tribe. There are 300, 350 Muslim tribes” in Nigeria, the priest said.

“The Nigerian president (Muhammadu Bahuri) is a Fulani.”

Seeking lasting cures to these ills is not easy but necessary in Fidelis’s eyes.

“The question is: Can the rule of law work?” he asked.

Although Nigeria obtained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1960, “we have not grown so well since then,” Fidelis told CNS.

Merchants from southern Nigeria have already been scared away due to the unpredictable interpretations of civil law, Fidelis said.

“We need to come up with a specific plan” to build up the country, the priest added. While the government may reject church building permits, it has allowed construction of schools and other types of buildings by Christian groups.

“We need aid for basic education,” Fidelis said. Farmers, many of them Christians, who live in northern Nigeria need to prosper, he added.

In an Ash Wednesday letter, the two top leaders of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria took note of some of the difficulties facing the nation.

“Many communities are constantly threatened, harassed and sometimes even sacked by herdsmen, as they seek to take over more territories to graze their cattle forcefully,” said Archbishop Augustine Akubeze, conference president, and Bishop Camillus Umoh, secretary.

“The level of insecurity in Nigeria today is such that whether at home or on the road, most Nigerians, in all the parts of the country, live in fear. The repeated barbaric executions of Christians by the Boko Haram insurgents and the incessant cases of kidnapping for ransom linked to the same group and other terrorists have traumatized many citizens,” they said in the letter, titled “Prayer and Penance for Peace and Security in Our Country.”

“That the perpetrators of these heinous crimes make public shows of them on social media and Nigerians do not hear of any arrests or prosecution of the criminals raises grave questions about the ability and willingness of the government to protect the lives of the ordinary Nigerians.”

Bishop Daniel J. Malloy of Rockford, Illinois, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote Akubeze Feb. 26: “I am aware of the immense suffering and loss of life caused by Boko Haram and ISIS in northeastern Nigeria that has also spilled over into neighboring Cameroon, Niger and Chad.”

“We join you in deploring their wanton violence and in calling on the international community to assist the security forces of Nigeria to protect all life and re-establish the rule of law,” Malloy wrote. He added he would write to the U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security and advise them to heed the Nigerian bishops’ ideas on how to bring about peace and stability in the country.

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