Nigeria's Top Prelate on Boko Haram: 'They Want to Hurt the Heart of Nigeria'

Archbishop of Jos Hopes Girls' Kidnapping Will Move International Community to Stop Terrorist Group

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Last month approximately 275 girls were kidnapped from a government-run secondary school in the town of Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria. Boko Haram admitted responsibility for the kidnappings, as well as a wave of violence that has left thousands dead since the beginning of the year.

International Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need today spoke to Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria.

Q: This is not the first time that Boko Haram has perpetrated violence against innocent victims in Nigeria but this time the blow has shocked the world.

Archbishop Kaigama: They want to hurt the heart of Nigeria. I am very worried. These girls have never been outside of their village, and now they are in the bush. I just pray that the religious values that Boko Haram promotes are sufficient to influence them to respect the dignity of these girls. They are just innocent girls and every human being feels bad about this. Life is sacred.

Q: Surely, it is tragic that something so horrific has to occur to attract the attention of the world.

Archbishop Kaigama: Yes, Boko Haram has already perpetrated a lot of attacks and killed thousands of people since 2009. In my own Diocese of Jos, we have suffered several attacks, e.g. St. Finbarr’s Catholic Church in which 14 people died. In February, the group killed more than 100 Christian men in the villages of Doron Baga and Izghe, but the international community did not respond. This time was different, I think, because they are innocent young girls and also because it touches directly the suffering of women, the mothers of these children. And women can identify themselves more with the pain of others. The women started holding demonstrations – both Christian and Muslim women.

Q: Although Boko Haram is persecuting Christians and trying impose a radical version of Islam upon the whole country, isn't it true that more and more of the persecution and violence are affecting the Muslim community too?

Archbishop Kaigama: Yes.  At the beginning, it was more the idea to destroy Christianity, so-called “Western values” and implant a Sharia state in the North of Nigeria. So they targeted Christians as well as police stations and other institutions representing Western values. But now one cannot say that they are only attacking Christians. Boko Haram has killed Muslim clergy as well. It is no longer about north or south, nor about Muslims or Christians. It is about human beings.  Nigerians are standing up together for freedom and dignity; a common voice is growing up, a voice that says: “violence is never the way.”

Q: How many of the girls are Christian and to what extent were they targeted because so many of them are Christian?

Archbishop Kaigama: Most of the girls are Christian. The majority of the girls who escaped were Christian so we can presume that this applies to those still being held. But it is also true that there are some Muslims who were also kidnapped. So this incident is further evidence to show that Boko Haram is also targeting Muslims to some extent.

Q: There have been criticisms about the government’s reaction to the violence perpetrated by Boko Haram, especially in the wake of the kidnapping of the school girls. Are these criticisms justified?

Archbishop Kaigama: The government underestimated the Boko Haram crisis and was therefore slow in reacting. Part of the problem is that resources were not used in the right way to provide adequate support for the security agents and the proper equipment they need to combat the violence, perhaps because of some corrupt practices. Some security sources are claiming that Boko Haram’s weapons are more sophisticated and more developed than those of the military and police. The resources have to reach the right people. Also, soldiers have been killed trying to defend people and their families have not received enough help.  It is important that these families receive assistance.

Q: What is the Catholic Church doing in response to the kidnappings?

Archbishop Kaigama: We tried dialogue and it didn’t work; the government used force and it didn’t work. At this stage, what we need to do is to pray: only God can move the heart of these people. We pray and we request your prayers. As President of the Bishops’ Conference, I wrote to all the Catholics in Nigeria to have an hour of adoration, asking all the bishops, priests and faithful to offer prayer.

Q; What are you praying for?

Archbishop Kaigama: I am praying for three things: The first is that they release the girls soon and without harm. Secondly, that Boko Haram stops these attacks and abandons violence. And then that the government benefits from the help of other countries around the world: that countries come together and fight terrorism, hunger, poverty to create an authentic unity, not just to serve political – hypocritical – interests.

Q: This problem has been going on now for five years. Are you hopeful that the international community can solve this problem now?

Archbishop Kaigama: We have to stand together, this is the only solution. Boko Haram has weapons but how are these weapons getting to the terrorists? Where is the money coming from? Who is training them? I believe the international community can deal with this. I am a priest, it is not my task, but I feel that the international governments working together can do it. Nigeria plays an important role in Africa and the world. It is better to help now rather than wait until it is too late and even more complicated.

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Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)