Despite the constant threat of violence from Boko Haram terrorists, Catholics in Nigeria remain faithful to the Gospel, trusting God as they offer a witness of forgiveness, said a priest from the country.
As they attend Sunday Mass each week, Catholics in Nigeria “go into a church but don't know if they'll come out,” said Fr. Kenneth Chukwuka Iloabuchi.
The Nigerian priest, who is currently serving in the Diocese of Cartagena, Spain, recounted the experience of Christians in his home country to ACI Prensa, CNA's Spanish language sister agency. Iloabuchi visited several cities in Mexico in mid-February as part of the second Night of Witnesses organized by the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
The most populous nation in Africa, Nigeria for years has faced attacks and kidnappings by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. The group is estimated to have killed tens of thousands over the last decade. Christians are targeted, sometimes in attacks during Mass.
But the Catholics in Nigeria hold fast to the faith “unto death,” Iloabuchi said.
“There's one case that really struck me,” he recalled, that of “a woman who during Christmas Eve Mass lost all of her family members” to a terrorist attack.
“This woman said at the burial that she would not give in, that she would remain a Catholic unto death, that that was not going to take away her faith,” he said.
“With that peace of heart, with this attitude of forgiveness, they're giving a great witness.”
Two years ago, the priest said, while visiting a village in northern Nigeria, “in the middle of Mass a sacristan came up, an assistant, and told me that a message had been received that Boko Haram was going to enter the village and was going to attack the people, was going to attack Christians.”
“At one point, I was scared and I asked him if I had to end the Mass so the people could leave. He told me no, that never for fear of this group… had they left the church. They had never abandoned their church for fear [the militants] were going to come in to kill the people, because if they started living that way, the terrorists will have won the war.”
Iloabuchi confessed he was afraid. “But seeing the people praising God, living the ceremony, praying, I had to ask myself: 'You, who are a priest are afraid, while these people are praising God?' And I had to take this encouragement from the people to celebrate the Holy Eucharist with dignity, and we celebrated it well without a problem.”
That night, they received a message that the militants had entered the neighboring village and killed six people.
The priest said he was struck by those who lost family members to attacks such as these, yet remained at peace.
“The ministers of the Church are working hard, beginning with the Nigerian Bishops' Conference and the priests who live in the parishes with the people,” he said.
“What they are preaching is forgiveness, justice, peace and love,” the priest said. “That leads even young people in the Church, instead of taking up arms,…to forgive those who are persecuting them, and think that tomorrow will be better.”