Ondo State governor Rotimi Akeredolu, foreground, third from left, and others view the aftermath of an attack June 5, Pentecost Sunday, at St. Francis Xavier Church in Owo, a town in Ondo State, Nigeria. Gunmen with explosives stormed the church and opened fire, killing more than 50 worshippers and wounding others. PHOTO BY AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

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Violence in Nigeria holds personal significance for priests in the archdiocese

On Pentecost Sunday, June 5, more than 50 Catholics were killed during an attack by a band of gunmen while attending Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in the Nigerian state of Ondo.

Two weeks later, worshippers at St. Moses Catholic Church and Maranatha Baptist Church in the state of Kaduna were also the victims of  attacks as bandits targeted a rural area, resulting in multiple deaths, the abduction of an unspecified number of residents and destruction of homes and property. 

For two priests, one currently serving and one who previously served in the Archdiocese of Omaha – Father Vitalis Anyanike and Father Kizito Okhuoya – the turbulent situation in the country is cause for personal worry and concern.

Originally from Nigeria, they recently shared their insights concerning the growing number of violent attacks being carried out against Christians, the causes of the violence, and how Catholics there are bearing their burden.

Both priests believe that decades of ethnic and religious strife, political corruption and a lack of moral consciousness among many of the nation’s leaders are to blame for the violence that’s occurring on an all-too-frequent basis across the country. 

“It’s profound ugliness to see what is happening to such a beautiful country,” said Father Anyanike, pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes-St. Adalbert Parish in Omaha. “It wasn’t something that began today. It’s something that’s been smoldering since the beginning of the country.” 

ETHNIC, RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES

Father Anyanike, who spent the first 22 years of his life in Nigeria before his family immigrated to the United States, said there are “multiple layers to the issue,” beginning with ethnicity and religious differences.

Chief among contributing factors is the imbalance of political power between the Muslim and Christian areas of the country, Father Anyanike said. 

Father Okhuoya, who recently concluded his service in the archdiocese as pastor of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Verdigre, St. William Mission in Niobrara and St. Andrew Parish in Bloomfield and is now serving in the Archdiocese for the Military Services and the United States Air Force, said the root cause of the violence predates Nigeria’s independence from Great Britain in 1960.

“Power has always been concentrated in the north,” he said. “The northern part of Nigeria is mostly Muslim – Islamic. The southern part of Nigeria is mostly Christian. Historically, the north has had the monopoly of power in Nigeria. 

“Nigeria was made up of multiple nations, tribes and kingdoms,” he said. “We, as a nation, our leaders never sat down and said, ‘How can we figure out the merger of different nations, kingdoms and tribes?’ Because of that, we’ve had one problem after another and still have not been able to resolve it.”

POLITICAL CORRUPTION, CRIME, TERRORISM 

According to Father Anyanike and Father Okhuoya, political corruption and selfishness among many Nigerian leaders has contributed significantly to the rise in crime and aggression toward Christians. 

“Over the years, many of our leaders have enriched themselves at the expense of the poor and underdeveloped,” Father Okhuoya said. “A lot of children are not receiving a proper education, (and) that has created a lot of poverty and unemployment, which contributes to a high rate of crime.” 

Both priests agree the violence in Nigeria has been exacerbated in recent years by the growing presence of radical terrorist organizations, most notably the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram and groups of Fulani bandits. Father Okhuoya said Nigeria is currently the most terrorized nation in the world. 

“Over 10 years ago, we saw the birth of a terrorist group called Boko Haram,” he said. “We’ve had different fanatical groups over the years in Nigeria but none have been so brutal as Boko Haram. The killing and kidnappings of innocent Nigerians is a daily occurrence. It is a country under siege.”

MISSIONARY EFFORTS 

Father Anyanike has siblings living in Nigeria and also works closely with a missionary religious community of sisters and brothers he founded in 2003 called Ad Gentes Missionaries. The work is difficult because of the current environment, he said, but the mission has endured. 

“One of our priests is working in a parish where the pastor was killed sometime in January,” he said. “Every day, I think about him – I worry.”  

 The mission provides schooling, medical care and other needs to children in a rural area of north-central Nigeria that is predominately Muslim.   

“Christians and Muslims are learning together,” Father Anyanike said. “I must say, we have great relationships with a lot of Muslims, despite the problems.

Nuns play a major role in carrying out the work of the mission, Father Anyanike said, noting they can reach places in Muslim areas the priests can’t.

“The nuns are effective ministers of the Gospel in that setting,” he said. “But, it’s very hard, especially now. They (terrorists) will kidnap people, especially women. Of course, sometimes what they do to those women you don’t want to know – it’s horrible. I’m terrified every day when I think about it.” 

NO QUICK FIXES

Both Father Anyanike and Father Okhuoya believe Christian and Muslim leaders sharing dialogue and working together for the common good of the country must be part of a long-term solution to curbing the violence in Nigeria, but there are no quick fixes. 

“There has to be some kind of moral transformation across the country where people have to think less about themselves and more about others,” Father Okhuoya said. “We need more political leaders who will do what’s best for the masses and good for the nation. 

“It is one of the most religious countries in the world. The level of violence and corruption that you see in the country doesn’t reflect our religiosity.” 

Father Okhuoya said the Nigerian Catholic Bishop Conference and the Christian Association of Nigeria have provided strong guidance and most Nigerian Catholics, despite the persecution they’ve endured, have kept their faith. 

“Let’s just say reality is grim for most people and the future is uncertain in virtually every aspect of life,” he said. “Now, in spite of this, many faith-filled Nigerians continue to pray, fast, stay hopeful, trusting that God someday will restore the glory of a nation that was once the envy of other nations.”