Another day, with yet another funeral.
Catholics in Nigeria have buried many priests and believers killed in their country’s brutal wars over land, cattle, honor and religion. But this was the first time Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of the Sokoto Diocese had preached at the funeral of a seminarian.
A suspect in the crime said 18-year-old Michael Nnadi died urging his attackers to repent and forsake their evil ways.
“We are being told that this situation has nothing to do with religion,” said Kukah, in remarks distributed across Nigeria in 2020. “Really? … Are we to believe that simply because Boko Haram kills Muslims, too, they wear no religious garb? Are we to deny the evidence before us, of kidnappers separating Muslims from infidels or compelling Christians to convert or die?”
The bishop was referring to fierce debates – in Nigeria and worldwide – about attacks by Muslim Fulani herders on Christian and Muslim farmers in northern and central Nigeria. The question is whether these gangs have been cooperating with Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The conflict has claimed Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostal Christians and many others, including Muslims opposed to the violence. Prominent Muslim leaders have condemned Boko Haram, and church leaders have condemned counterattacks by Christians. In recent years it has become next to impossible to keep track of the number of victims, including mass kidnappings of schoolchildren and the murders of clergy and laypeople, including beheadings.
“Religion is not the only driver of the mass atrocities,” said Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, in December testimony before members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Not all 40 million members of the Fulani ethnic group in the region are Islamic extremists. However, there is evidence that some fraction of the Fulani have an explicit jihadist agenda. …
“A mounting number of attacks in this region also evidence deep religious hatred, an implacable intolerance of Christians, and an intent to eradicate their presence by violently driving them out, killing them or forcing them to convert.”
In a sobering Feb. 23 statement, the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Nigeria warned that the “nation is falling apart.”
But conditions could quickly get worse, the bishops said, because the “clamor for self-defense is fast gaining ground. Many ethnic champions are loudly beating the drums of war, calling not only for greater autonomy but even for outright opting out of a nation in which they have lost all trust. … Calls for secession on an ethnic basis from many quarters should not be ignored or taken lightly.”
During the Lenten season preceding Easter, which is on April 4 for Catholics and Western Christians, the Nigerian bishops led a protest march in the rain, starting at the National Christian Center in the capital city of Abuja, in the center of Nigeria.
“We join you in deploring … wanton violence and in calling on the international community to assist the security forces of Nigeria to protect all life and reestablish the rule of law,” wrote Bishop David J. Mallory, head of the Committee on International Justice and Peace for the U.S. Catholic bishops.
Before that protest, Lagos Archbishop Alfred Martin posted an online appeal to his flock, urging them to resist the temptation to fight back. There is “so much mutual suspicion, ethnic and religious, and sadly it is gradually degenerating into hatred and loathing of one another. This is made worse by the perception that government – that has the responsibility of ensuring equity and justice, the two values that assure peace and mutual love – is perceived as not doing its duty, or even worse, as promoting the activities that lead to mutual suspicion.”
In the end, he said, “It takes supernatural grace to love those who hate us.”
Bishop Kukah was even more blunt during his funeral sermon for the murdered seminarian.
“Through violence, you can kill the liar, but you cannot kill lies or install truth,” he said. “Through violence, you can murder the terrorist, but you cannot end terrorism. Through violence, you can murder the violent, but you cannot end violence. Through violence, you can murder the hater, but you cannot end hatred. Unredeemed man sees vengeance as power, strength and the best means to teach the offender a lesson. These are the ways of the flesh.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.