As Christians in the country face a campaign of escalating violence, one Nigerian priest spoke to CNA about the suffering of the Church, and why he has hope of a final victory.
“I want other Catholics around the world to know of the suffering of our people,” Fr. Joseph Bature of the Diocese of Maidiguri, told CNA Monday in Washington, D.C.
Fr. Bature related the experience of trying to console a widow who had lost her children in violent anti-Christian attacks. “She had asked ‘where are our other brothers and sisters? Do they know what we go through?’” he recounted.
“Our people feel isolated, because this situation sometimes is poorly reported,” he said. “It’s the loneliness, the sense of isolation, and the frustration.”
Yet, he said, Christians in Nigeria have not lost hope.
“We are very hopeful. Even in the midst of our suffering, we know Christ is on our side,” he said. “This might be our Egypt, but [surely] the Promised Land awaits us. So we are full of hope also. We are not giving up.”
Fr. Bature was in Washington, D.C. this week, to speak with advocates and U.S. government officials about the persecution of Christians in Nigeria.
Attacks on Nigerian Christians are incessant and committed with impunity, Bature told CNA. They mainly come from three sources—the terror group Boko Haram, militant nomadic Fulani herdsmen, and the terror group Islamic State West Africa Province (Iswap).
The list of recent attacks has been staggering. In February, militants set vehicles on fire that were carrying sleeping Christian travelers, killing 30.
Islamic State militants released a video in December, claiming that they were the ones who beheaded 10 Christians and shot another; they said the killings were revenge for the U.S. raid that resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In another horrific attack on Dec. 26, a Catholic bridal party traveling from Maidiguri was attacked and beheaded by militants.
A January attack on Good Shepherd Seminary in Kaduna resulted in the abduction of four seminarians, one of whom was killed. At the funeral Mass of the seminarian Michael Nnadi on Feb. 11, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto called it a defining moment for the Church in Nigeria.
“Our nation is like a ship stranded on the high seas, rudderless and with broken navigational aids,” he said.
In an Ash Wednesday letter to Nigerian Catholics, Archbishop Augustine Obiora Akubeze of Benin City called for Catholics to wear black in solidarity with victims and pray, in response to “repeated” executions of Christians by Boko Haram and “incessant” kidnappings “linked to the same group.”
Other Christian villages have been attacked, farms set ablaze, vehicles carrying Christians attacked, men and women have been killed and kidnapped, and women have been taken as sex slaves and tortured—a “pattern,” he said, of targeting Christians.
“The common ground for all of them is the persecution of Christians,” Fr. Bature said on Monday, noting that the videos and messages of Boko Haram and Iswap show they are trying to establish an Islamic caliphate.
“The underlying point of all that is to drive away any Western ideology, Western form of living, and institute the caliphate,” he said.
Yet with all these attacks, the Nigerian government has failed to provide the necessary security for its people, he said, and the U.S. needs to push them to protect its Christians and preserve freedom of religion.
“The duty of the government is to provide the security to protect the citizens,” he said. The U.S. should pressure the Nigerian government, he said, “and say ‘do your work, protect your people.”
There is also a need for an independent judiciary and senate in the country to hold the administration accountable, he said.
Bature ministers to internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in area camps, victims of violent attacks by Boko Haram, Iswap, and Fulani herdsmen. He acts as the diocese’s director of psychosocial support and trauma care.
While in seminary, he was sent by his bishop to Rome to study psychology. He recently returned to the country’s northeast region.
“These are mostly people who have lost a dear one, who have lost their means of livelihood, women and children, some of them sometimes they don’t know where their husbands are, don’t know where their parents are. Some have lost their parents in the camps we care for,” he said.
According to the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), there are more than two million estimated IDPs in Nigeria. “They live in very terrible conditions, very pitiable conditions,” Bature said.
Many have suffered from trauma and physical violence. Fr. Bature says he performs a rapid assessment of patients, with psychological treatment for grave cases.
“Many of them believe that they are no longer normal,” he said, and some think that they are possessed—cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he said.
The Church’s vision here, he said, is for the care of the whole person, both body and soul.
“You cannot also take care of the spiritual needs of the person when the human needs, the bodily needs, the psychological needs, are not well attended to,” he said. “It’s like what St. Thomas would say, that you cannot preach about Jesus to a hungry stomach. The person will certainly not take it.”
The Church does the best it can, but “no doubt, we are just very few, and the needs are so enormous,” he said. A grant by the aid foundation Aid to the Church in Need helped with the construction of a psychosocial center.
Fr. Bature is calling on Catholics in the U.S. and elsewhere to pray in solidarity with persecuted Christians in Nigeria, and also to financially support them if they are able. “We have so many needs,” he said.
“We are asking for more, and I hope they don’t get tired of us, because those people there [in Nigeria] need them, and that is where Christ is also,” he said. “Christ is in the midst of those people who suffer.”
Aid, he said, can “help these people, to give them a sense of meaning, to give them back life, to make them understand that their faith they have in Christ is not in vain.”