Nigerian bishop highlighting anti-Christian violence draws government criticism


ROME – One of Nigeria’s most popular Catholic bishops angered his country’s leader last July by telling a commission of the U.S. Congress that anti-Christian violence continued to grow in the country, and that President Muhammadu Buhari was allowing for it.

Speaking to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Bishop Matthew Kukah, who is the Secretary of the National Peace Committee, accused Buhari of deliberately appointing more people of his ethnicity and faith into political offices.

“The whole country is invaded by armed bandits, kidnappers, who attack communities at will,” he said. “The fact that the government seems to be either helpless or uninterested in dealing decisively with these people has added more confusion.”

“And the contradiction here is that the president has blatantly pursued nepotistic policies that show very clearly his preferences for men and women of his faith.”

Acknowledging that the country is a democracy with weak structures and institutions, which are “existential issues,” he told the U.S. Congress that Nigeria needs practical assistance.

Nigeria’s president’s office answered the verbal attack, decrying that the bishop had humiliated the country unnecessarily, with the presidential spokesman saying that it’s regrettable that “people like Kukah are doing their best to sow discord and strife among Nigerians” at a time the nation needed peace the most.

Instead of backtracking, the prelate double-downed during an interview with Arise Media, available via YouTube.

“In fairness to the president, he has expressed no objection to anything I said,” Kukah said  earlier this week.

The bishop spoke at length not only of the presidency’s reaction to his words, but also about the core of his virtual talk to the U.S. Congress: “there’s conflict that involves religion and politics, and it’s a Molotov cocktail, even in a good day, it’s inheritably conflictual.”

“The critical question that this country has not resolved is ‘Who are we as Nigerians?’” he said, before listing several tribes and also using religion – Christians and Muslims – as qualifiers. “That is why the situation in the country has become so explosive.”

“What happened to us is that the controversial issues were never openly discussed,” he added.

“We have never had a situation where we have decided what kind of society we want. That is why society today is shaped by ethnic, religion and other alliances,” said Kukah, going back and forth on historic moments in Nigeria, particularly changes of leadership, which according to him, had more to do with friendship that worth.

“We live in a chaotic society,” said the bishop, “in which the strongest survive. We are reaping the fruits of all the terrible things we have suffered or left unsolved.”

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. It’s the largest Christian nation in Africa, with some 80 million believers, and according to the Pew Research Center, a staggering 89 percent of Nigerian Christians attend church services at least once a week, one of the highest shares in the world. By way of comparison, about 40 percent of Christians attend weekly services in the U.S.

According to Genocide Watch, a nonpartisan watchdog group, some 11,500 Christians have been killed in Nigeria since 2015, meaning 2,300 a year, which translates into roughly one every four hours.

Some 4 to 5 million Christians are also believed to be internally displaced.

According a report released in July, at least 3,462 Christians, including ten priests or pastors, were murdered in Nigeria during the first 200 days of 2021. The number is slightly lower than last year’s total, but almost double the 2,200 people who have died of COVID-19.

RELATED: New report says anti-Christian violence in Nigeria highest level for years

Kukah said violence against Christians is at its core both political and religious, but also ethnic, particularly in the country’s northern states, where jihadists operate freely under the cover and protection of the security forces.

Noting that Nigeria’s government is weak, he said that “most of the benefits of democracy are intangibles, such as freedom of speech and respect for human rights. If what you want infrastructure, go back to apartheid in South Africa or the Germany of Hitler. They had very good infrastructure, but they denied human beings their fundamental rights.”

“It is important that those who rule us know that freedom of speech is a human right and that freedom of expression is a God-given right, that nobody can take away from us,” Kukah said.

“As a Christian, one cannot help but become restless when one sees an unjust society,” he said, justifying his relentless protests against what he sees as the government’s unwillingness to fight the injustice being perpetrated against Christians highlighting that he’s “above all, a priest.”

“We have to create an environment in which everyone has the freedom to be what they want to be,” he said.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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