For Bishop Matthew Kukah, persecution is not just the history of the Church. It’s a reality that he lives every day.
In the diocese of Sokoto, located in northern Nigeria, ministry includes not only the normal sacramental and pastoral concerns of any other diocese. It also includes regularly responding to violence and attacks against the small Christian minority living in the majority-Muslim area.
Christians living in northern Nigeria today wonder “why have they and their institutions become target practice,” Bishop Kukah told CNA.
Christian churches and businesses — as well as the people who frequent them — suffer both targeted violence at the hands of Islamist extremists and destruction stemming from frustrations with the government, economy and social order, he said. And after the attacks, Christian communities face a wall of bureaucratic challenges and lack of government support as they struggle to rebuild.
The bishop said that he would not characterize the situation as a constant state of fear, but rather one of uncertainty.
“(Y)ou live in a state that is less than you expect as a citizen,” he said. “You don’t know what to expect tomorrow.”
Bishop Kukah spoke to CNA during a recent trip to the United States to alert U.S. officials and organizations about the plight faced by his people and other targets of Islamist fundamentalism. He made the trip as a guest of Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charity that focuses on helping persecuted Christians around the world.
A complex problem
“Christians suffer disproportionate violence from Muslim extremists for reasons that very often have nothing to do with the Christian community,” Bishop Kukah said.
In many cases, he elaborated, violence in the region is “unprovoked” by the Christian community, but instead occurs as a reaction to events such as unfair elections, economic misfortunes, or international events such as American military actions in Libya or Iraq.
In addition, both Christian and moderate Muslim communities face attacks from Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group based in the country. Since 2009, changing government relations and radicalization within Boko Haram have resulted in a dramatic increase in violent attacks against civilian targets, including the 2014 abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibook, Nigeria. In 2015, the Global Terrorism Index named Boko Haram the world’s deadliest terrorist organization, greater than ISIS.
Adding to the suffering of the community, Bishop Kukah said, is a lack of support from the government. While some targets of violence find government and societal aid in rebuilding and accessing services such as schools and hospitals, the state in northern Nigeria merely “looks on” as Christian churches and institutions struggle to rebuild.
“Our churches are being bombed with no compensation paid for the schools or other properties of the Church.”
Furthermore, non-Muslim institutions in general — including churches, schools and hospitals — are legally limited in northern Nigeria, the bishop said. Non-Muslims face restrictions purchasing land, constructing buildings, and seeking government funding for schools, along with a number of bureaucratic obstacles that do not exist for Muslim citizens living in the region.
And while heightened waves of violence have drawn some recent media attention, the roots of the conflict go back centuries, Bishop Kukah said. Conquest of the area by Muslim rulers, along with attitudes carried by British colonial leaders, have created the perception that Western education is opposed to Islam — a social divide which heightens the tension between Christian and Muslim neighbors today.
In addition, citizens are living in an area where there is “an almost total breakdown of trust,” he said: parents and children are separated, spouses or other family members may not have confirmation that their loved ones are even alive.
In this uncertainty, both the Christian and Muslim communities have separated even further, Bishop Kukah continued. “People were living side-by-side with one another, but now what you witness is a tale of two cities.”
“Christians have relocated themselves to where they feel safe. Muslims have done the same.”
Building blocks of peace
Amid the division and disharmony, Bishop Kukah still hopes that northern Nigeria can move towards unification, a process that will require “leaders to bring things back together.”
The first step in countering violence, he said, is educating the public to counter projections and prejudices, which he claimed “are based on fear” as well as misunderstanding.
Catholic schools play a unique role in achieving this aim. The bishop pointed to a recent testing of northern Nigerian state’s students, in which the top two students from the entire state were selected to meet the governor. Both students — one girl, one boy — came from the same Catholic school, one that does not receive any government support. What’s more, he continued, both students were Muslim.
The meeting with the students was an opportunity to celebrate their achievements, Bishop Kukah said, but also to discuss the challenges Catholic schools face in the state. “The governor responded by telling me, even if it meant him buying the land, he would pay for [new land for schools].”
In addition, the bishop said, international actors have a role to play in reducing violence throughout northern Nigeria.
“The government of America must take full responsibility for how it shapes leadership around the world,” he commented, adding that policies and conflicts around the world bear consequences for the people of northern Nigeria. “We are suffering the collateral damage,” he lamented.
The U.S. and other countries can also call attention to the persecution faced by Christians and other communities in Nigeria, he said, emphasizing that the opportunity to help those facing violence “is really a call to appreciation of our common humanity.”
But while international support is important, the solution to violence in Nigeria will ultimately come from within Nigeria, Bishop Kukah said.
“The primary responsibility of rebuilding our country rests with us,” he stressed, noting that change will take time and discussion with others in the community. He suggested engagement with the government to make concerns known, but also cautioned that government should focus on providing specific, practical solutions.
“When we talk about reconstruction, it is very important that the government of Nigeria appreciates the scope of the problem.”
Moving towards peace will require a collective effort, but to Bishop Kukah, it is one worth making.
“As we’re making progress, we’re also assuming responsibility,” he said.