Pope Francis has sent a letter to the bishops of Nigeria telling them not to be discouraged by problems caused by an increase of extremist violence in the country, and said he prays for them every day. “I would like to assure you and all who suffer of my closeness,” the Pope told Nigeria's bishops in a letter dated March 2. Every day, he said, “I remember you in my prayers and I repeat here, for your encouragement and comfort, the consoling words of the Lord Jesus, which must always resound in our hearts: 'Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.'” Francis' letter was written days before the militant extremist Islamist group Boko Haram, which has been terrorizing eastern Nigeria, pledged its allegiance to Islamic State. The latter has established a caliphate in Iraq after launching a bloody campaign to last summer, persecuting all non-Sunni persons in their territory. Pope Francis said that with more than 160 million inhabitants, Nigeria set to play primary role not only in Africa, but in the world. He noted how extremism and fundamentalism in the country have risen alongside their “robust” economic growth in recent years, and have affected society at the ethnic, social and religious levels. “Many Nigerians have been killed, wounded or mutilated, kidnapped and deprived of everything: their loved ones, their land, their means of subsistence, their dignity and their rights. Many have not been able to return to their homes,” Francis observed. All this has been done at the hands of those who claim to be religious, but instead “abuse religion,” turning it into an ideology for their own “distorted interests of exploitation and murder,” he said. He reminded the bishops of the peace that comes from God, saying that this peace is just “the absence of conflict or the result of political compromise or fatalistic resignation,” but a gift from Jesus Christ, who is himself the Prince of Peace. “Only the man or woman who treasures the peace of Christ as a guiding light and way of life can become a peacemaker,” he said, and noted how the achievement of peace requires daily commitment and efforts in dialogue and reconciliation. In a March 11 email interview, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, spokesman for the Bishops Conference of Nigeria, spoke with CNA about the new partnership between Boko Haram and Islamic State, saying it could lead to an increase in violence in Nigeria. When asked if Christians in the country are preparing themselves for the nightmares currently unfolding in Syria and Iraq at the hands of Islamic State, the archbishop said “Spiritually, of course.” “The Boko Haram sect and its ilk, ISIS or ISIL, have a common ‘modus operandi’ (mode of working) in terms of recruitment of new members and execution of their aims,” he said. By uniting themselves to Islamic State, Boko Haram “is craving for more international attention and will no doubt intensify its attacks to justify its new international identity,” the archbishop said, noting that new partnership could also mean more support for Boko Haram from their international allies. The current situation for Christians in the Middle East is a sign for Nigerian Christians to step-up their commitment in both prayer and vigilance, he explained. He said the government should also do more to guarantee peace and safety, and urged the United Nations Security Council to raise its “level of war” against terrorism. Despite the bleak scenario at hand, Archbishop Kaigama said that Nigerians as a whole “never give up the hope of things getting better no matter how seemingly hopeless the situation becomes.” He cited recent victories of Nigerian army's against the terrorist group in the northeast of the country, saying they offer him “a glimmer of hope.” During a recent international congress in Nambia, Africa's Church leaders discussed the possibility of forming a Reconciliation Committee for the continent, which would address the possible factors leading to conflicts or violence, as well as the best course of action for when they occur. Organized by the Justice and Peace Commission of Africa's Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), the four-day congress brought together both national and regional Justice and Peace Commissions of the Catholic Church in Africa. Participants discussed the theme “Justice and Peace at the service of Reconciliation and Integral Development of Africa,” and spoke of the possible formation of the reconciliation committee as a response to current unrest on the continent. At the end of his letter, Pope Francis thanked Nigeria’s bishops, priests, religious and missionaries, who, despite the country’s challenges, have not abandoned their flocks, but have continued to serve and bear witness to the Gospel. Assuring his solidarity, Francis told them “do not grow tired of doing what is right!” and encouraged the bishops not to be discouraged, but to “go forward on the way of peace.” “Accompany the victims! Come to the aid of the poor! Teach the youth! Become promoters of a more just and fraternal society!” he said, and prayed that the Resurrection of the Lord will bring “conversion, reconciliation and peace to all the people of Nigeria!”
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