THE BLOG
08/01/2014 06:10 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2014

In Nigeria, the Heart of Darkness

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, president of the Nigerian bishops' conference, recently spent a few days in New York -- a brief respite from his increasingly violence-ridden country, where the jihadists of Boko Haram continue to kill indiscriminately, Muslims and Christians alike.

Within the span of a week in late July, the group set off two bombs that killed 100; an assault on a Catholic church in the city of Kano left five dead; and, in highly disturbing development, young girls as young as 10 are becoming suicide bombers. Meanwhile, July 30th marked the 100th day since Boko Haram's kidnapping of nearly 300 young girls, most of them Christians.

The archbishop spoke with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need July 31th.

Leaving Islamic extremism aside for a moment, what is the relationship between Christians and Muslims like in Nigeria?

There is a fairly healthy competition between the two. It is often a struggle about geographical expansion and the politics of data. Each religious group is claiming numerical superiority, but the records don't bear that out. There is more pronounced inter-religious tension in the north. In the south there is a more liberal approach to Muslim-Christian relation. There is a better understanding of marriage between Christians and Muslims and the spirit of fanaticism or fundamentalism is less pronounced.

In the north, generally, a Muslim man can marry a Muslim or a Christian woman; but a Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian. In the south, though there are cases of prominent Muslim men marrying Christian women and allowing them to continue to practice their faith.

That the Muslim north has been dominant politically is a legacy of colonialism. When it came to the transfer of power in 1960, the British chose to take advantage of the indirect rule and the practice of sharia, which made for a certain stability and order.

You are a believer in dialogue.

We do our best to create harmony and understanding. There is the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Nigeria Interreligious Council. These bodies bring Muslims and Christians together. Let's explore where we come together and where we differ. We are not just fighting each other -- that is a misleading caricature of our country.

But given the differences between the two, what can dialogue really achieve? There is such a theological and philosophical gap.

But it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. In the midst of darkness or violence it is better to light a candle -- a candle of hope to dispel the terrible darkness of violence. True, we cannot get into theology because there won't be any progress. There is what we call the "Dialogue of Life." There is no alternative than to come together, as human beings -- drink tea or coffee together. Let's get to know each other. There can be some cross fertilization of ideas. The "Dialogue of Life" means simply, 'your life affects mine, and mine affects yours.' It is quite simple. It is not about producing instant results, but to be friends and to be engaged in conversation. I started this process in a modest way in Jos, where things were very bad when I was first appointed to the archdiocese.

Is the government simply not up to the task of properly managing the country? Things were pretty bad even before Boko Haram burst upon the scene.

Our leaders simply are not very sensitive to the poor, even when aid is available. The Church, with its limited possibilities, tries to promote dialogue, providing relief and in terms of simply being there. We stand out prominently -- not to boast -- because we have been helpful beyond political and religious divides. This good will comes from the heart, and the people appreciate it. People come to me for help and often I feel embarrassed because I can do so little. We end up being social workers. I thought my work was just to bless people ... but I also have to worry about water and electricity.

Do people join Boko Haram?

It is difficult to say, because we don't really know who they are. They could be your neighbors; your friends across the road. I always say, 'you know them only when they are dead -- when they have blown themselves up as suicide bombers.' They use nice cars because they want to be seen as respectable; then before you know it, there is an explosion.

Do you believe Boko Haram gets funding from abroad?

Both in and outside Nigeria there are serious sympathizers. Up to now our government has not been able not able to smoke them out though. There should be ways to trace financing and other forms of support, but I don't believe that our government is making this a top priority. We hope that with the help of the international community they can stem the flow of weapons and funds coming in. But, contrary to my expectations, nothing much has happened, even in the wake of the abduction of the schoolgirls which made headlines around the world. Boko Haram is well trained and well supplied. Who is helping the organization? I do suspect foreign funding. But, despite lots of money spent by our government and the military, answers are still grossly lacking.

It seems Boko Haram has broadened its range of targets, to include moderate Muslims as well as state institutions across the board.

At first we thought that they were simply against Western education and wanted to propagate what they believed was the authentic message of Islam. Then they went after the government, and next came the churches. The attacks on churches have happened in many places, with the tragic loss of life, and they have continued to this day. We must not forget that Muslim places of worship have also been targets. The repeated attacks in Kano and Kaduna show that the fight has gone beyond the religions of Islam and Christianity. In fact, many Muslims and Christians of good will are speaking a common language now and are exploring ways to bring an end to this menace.

Are you afraid personally?

Well, yes, it is normal to be afraid. But given my task, I have given up everything to serve God and his people. I don't have a biological family, wife and children, any possession I can call my own. If I should lose my life in the process of defending people's rights to freedom of worship and the unity of humanity, apart from my beloved pastoral collaborators and excellent people of goodwill (from various religious and ethnic backgrounds) I would leave behind, I have no other liabilities. While one does not court death, it is an inevitable end for all of us, including even for those who claim they are killing and bombing in the name of God. Certain as death will come, still, one is afraid of death, which is true for everybody.

Have you received any threats?

Thank God, no, but I know that my movements and activities and even my cell phone are being monitored. But since I plan no evil, encourage no evil or support no evil, I have nothing to hide.

What do you tell your priests and religious when it comes to coping with fear?

I go out. I never miss any public functions or ceremonies. That tells them that I am with them, and with the people. Even if violence takes place not far away, I go out in public, wearing my formal garb, to be present. Government officials stay away. I don't a have security detail -- that would be a magnet for the evildoers. The militants hate police.

Plus, protecting myself would make me a prisoner -- aside from the money we'd have to spend from our meagre resources. It would make the people afraid! Imagine if priests would go around with protection. We believe God is with us. We believe that we will triumph despite the machinations of the evildoers.

Do you believe Boko Haram is evil?

Absolutely! When you kill and destroy not only combatants but women and children, poor people, it is evil. In the attack on the Jos market, 118 died; they were not office workers or important people; those who died were orange sellers, ground nut sellers, milk sellers, looking to make a little money for the evening. This is an expression of evil.

What do the people need most?

They need comfort. The first thing I will do upon my return from this journey is to go to a parish; and to join a celebration of a congregation that celebrates its 50th anniversary. I will stay in a village that has no electricity -- no matter. I have to be present.

Because of the shortage of priests, a growing number of Nigerian priests are coming to the US to serve in parishes. What is the gift of Nigerian spirituality, the charism of the Nigerian Church? What is your gift to the universal Church?

Nigerians are a very resilient people. We have gone through so much -- civil war, violence, the atrocities of Boko Haram -- but you find every Nigerian still smiling and ready to go. We never say it is all ending. That vibrant spirit we also bring into the Church. Our liturgies are something special -- it is not just a routine affair. By Friday, everybody is already thinking about Sunday -- to prepare. On Saturday, the dresses are being washed and readied. That tells you -- something big is expected. Also, because we don't have many social and recreational opportunities, Sunday Mass is both a spiritual and social event.

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