YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Catholic bishops in Africa’s most populous nation have warned that Nigeria effectively has been taken over by insurgents, militia and criminal gangs, with Christians, including Catholic priests, among the most frequent victims.

At the end of their Second Plenary Meeting, held at a hotel in the capital area of Abuja Sept. 7-15, the bishops denounced widespread violence and chaos in Nigeria, a situation they said is compounded by rising economic unease and lack of political transparency.

On the security front, the bishops said insecurity “has remained a persistent problem in our country as insurgents, herdsmen militia, bandits, and so-called ‘unknown gunmen’ have continued to unleash terror in different parts of the country.”

The term ‘unknown gunmen’ refers to the language frequently used by police and security officials to describe violent assaults when the perpetrators are not identified or arrested.

“Kidnapping for ransom has continued,” the bishops said, with Catholic clergy particularly targeted. The latest priest to be kidnapped was Father Marcellinus Obioma Okide, who was taken on Sept. 17 but freed four days later.

Some reports suggest that Obioma’s Diocese of Enugu paid an unspecified ransom to secure his release, although officials have not confirmed those claims. In general, kidnapping for ransom has become an important revenue stream for many of Nigeria’s armed groups.

According to global research firm SB Morgan Intelligence, 30 Catholic priests were kidnapped in 2022, while at least 39 were killed.

With a Christian being slain every two hours for their faith, Nigeria has the unsavory distinction of being the world’s greatest persecutor of Christians, according to Christian persecution watchdog Open Doors.

In 2021, “More Christians were murdered for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country,” according to the group. There were than 4,650 victims, or over 80 percent of all Christian fatalities worldwide. Nigerians also accounted for 4,726 of the 5,259 Christians kidnapped in 2022.

Nigerian bishops complained that many of the country’s communities have been taken over by criminals.

“The result is that many [people] have fled their homes, abandoned their farms, shops, businesses and other sources of livelihood,” they said in their Sept. 15 communiqué.

“The throng of internally-displaced persons in our country is ever-growing, with many children out of school, making them easy prey to human traffickers. This state of affairs has been compounded by the incessant sit-at-home orders in the South-East issued by non-state actors. Many have lost their lives for failing to adhere to such illegal directives.”

The reference was to orders issued by insurgent groups in the southern part of Nigeria, mostly areas of the former Biafra which tried to break away and establish an independent state during a bloody 1967-70 civil war, for citizens to remain home during specified periods in order to pressure the government to give in to the groups’ demands.

The clerics said the killings and kidnappings were being carried out by criminal elements with various levels of sophistication, with terrorists increasingly turning to soft targets “with Catholic priests in mind.”

“The blood of the innocent continues to cry out to God for vengeance like Abel’s,” the bishops warned.

They accused the country’s security apparatus of looking the other way as Christians are targeted for elimination.

“The failure of the government to tackle the issue of killing of priests has further contributed to emboldening other criminals to do the same,” they said.

“Those involved should be identified. They are not spirits, but human beings. If the security system is proactive enough, they should have been able to unearth the killers by now.  The government has the responsibility to lead in dealing decisively with perpetrators of these atrocities which now serve as motivation for others to commit more crimes.”

They said the federal government bears full responsibility for the killings, because it has “lost the capacity to rein in sundry cartels of gunmen who now terrorize different places, particularly in the North, without let or hindrance.” They called for a redesign of the existing strategy to stem insecurity.

Adding to the rising insecurity is what the bishops described as a “failing and worsening economy” which has subjected Nigerians to “a life of poverty, hunger, hardship and suffering.”

The World Poverty Clock says 71 million Nigerians live in extreme poverty, and the country’s National Bureau of Statistics last year said 63 percent of the population of 133 million people are “multidimensionally poor.”

The World Bank predicts that between 2019 and 2025, the number of Nigerians living below the national poverty line will increase by 13 million, as population growth in the country continues to exceed efforts to combat poverty.

The situation, the bishops said, has been worsened by “the removal of a fuel subsidy, which has led to high cost of food items, transportation and meeting up with other essential needs. As if these are not enough, the hike in school fees has made it difficult for the children of the poor to continue their education.”

The church leaders blasted the federal government for engaging in “palliative measures” to smother the economic hardship, and urged the administration to address the “fundamental defective structures that deepened inequality and poverty.”

“We call on governments to provide the enabling environment for the creation of more jobs for our teeming unemployed youths. We equally encourage the government to put in place measures that will curb the persistence of theft of oil and other minerals. At the same time, we enjoin the government to radically review programs aimed at alleviating the suffering of youths. We equally advise the youth not to resort to violence and crime as a substitute for hard work,” the clerics said.

The bishops blasted “the ever increasing scandalous comfort and remuneration of elected leaders to the detriment of the poor,” and urged the governments to cut the increasing cost of running government “and that the money saved be used to provide essential amenities and services.”

Ultimately, the clerics believe that the way forward for Africa’s largest nation is to “journey together” in a spirit of synodality.

“Synodality is a way of life,” they said. “It means journeying together as a people of God by way of communion, participation and mission. It fosters collaboration, forgiveness and reconciliation.”

“Synodality is facilitated by listening, a deeper form of hearing, shared responsibility and dialogue. To listen is to seek to understand; to understand is to seek reconciliation. Reconciliation brings forgiveness; forgiveness brings collaboration which promotes growth and development.”

They concluded that the principles of synodality offer “a true path to rebuilding our country. As we seek to do this, the different ethnic components, political affiliations and religio-cultural diversities should be helped to come together to work for peace, progress and development.”

“In effect, synodality has the power to break all artificial barriers through cordiality and right relationships,” they said.