By: John Newton
The leader of Nigeria's Catholics has made an impassioned plea for peace and dialogue as the country faces violence, crippling economic crisis, and the threat of famine in the north-east, where militants continue to carry out attacks. The call comes at a time of heightened tension amid reports on Friday (3rd March) that three suicide bombers died after detonating explosives under a petrol tanker on the outskirts of the north-eastern city of Maiduguri. No other casualties were reported.
In his Lenten message, a copy of which was sent to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos painted a stark picture - but stressed that faith could help build bridges and bring healing to a fractured society. He wrote: "Our contemporary society, polluted by social vices, needs renewal. Sin is rationalised. Violence is institutionalised."
Militant groups in the Niger Delta renewed their terror campaign against foreign energy companies in August 2016. Amid reports that Nigeria's economic crisis is the worst in decades, Yakubu Dogara, Speaker of the House of Representatives, last month linked Nigeria's ongoing recession to the activities of the region's militia groups.
Archbishop Kaigama, who is president of the country's bishops' conference and the regional episcopal conference for West Africa, stressed the need for dialogue to resolve such situations. He said: "When we hear of youth from the North East, South East and the Niger Delta area threatening to destroy the economy, the unity and the corporate existence of this nation, the question is do they know the implications of war? The knives, swords, the bombs and guns have not brought victory to anyone. [In spite o]f all their boasting, no one has really won a war in this country.
"We are all losers after every war. Any war we fight will only take us back socially and economically to those dark days of survival of the fittest." We have experienced the sad effects of war and why try to go that way again?"
Since 2009 Islamist militant group Boko Haram has been carrying out a campaign of terror, mainly in the north east, which has left at least 20,000 dead and more than 2.6 million displaced. Despite government troops liberating areas from the group's control, attacks continue.
Boko Haram attacks have led to tensions between Christians and Muslims - but the Church has launched initiatives to promote harmony between the two faiths groups. New projects announced by ACN in late February included support for workshops on Islam and inter-religious dialogue in Osogbo Diocese.
Archbishop Kaigama wrote: "A lot of work is being done to foster peace, to stamp out violence and ensure orderliness and brotherliness in different parts of Nigeria where today misunderstanding based on religious, ethnic or economic reasons cause us a lot of drawback. We need more genuine dialogue across ethnic, religious and political boundaries."
The prelate stressed that Christianity teaches its adherents to build bridges by loving and serving those around them. Archbishop Kaigama wrote: "The beauty of Christianity is that it breaks down barriers, demolishes walls erected by ethnic or regional prejudices. If we welcome God but fail to welcome our brothers and sisters we are only Christians by half. When the rich young man asked Jesus how to gain eternal life, Jesus responded that it is by love of God and of neighbour..."
He stressed the need for Christians to live out their faith - and to witness to it in the way they lived their lives: "Our Christian religion teaches us to care about others, overcoming evil with good."
In conclusion he prayed that God would empower believers to help with the renewal of Nigeria. He wrote: "May the Lord give us the grace to be active players in cleaning the face of our distorted, bloodied and corrupted society and may we all experience the mercy of God powerfully during this Lenten Season and beyond."