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Dangers facing clergy in Nigeria

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WORLD Radio - Dangers facing clergy in Nigeria

Increasing attacks against Christians and clergy are raising alarms


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PAUL BUTLER, HOST: It’s Thursday the 28th of July, 2022.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Paul Butler.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. First up on The World and Everything in It. Nigeria’s insecurity hits clergy members.

Islamist insurgents and armed criminal gangs have long terrorized northern Nigeria. But recent attacks directly targeting Christians and clergy members have spilled over into other regions of the country. WORLD’s Onize Ohikere reports from Abuja, Nigeria.

ONIZE OHIKERE, REPORTER: On June 26, abductors seized Reverend Christopher Odia on his way to Sunday Mass in southern Edo state.

OJEIFO: It was such a shock to hear that he was kidnapped, but even more shocking to eventually hear in the evening of that day that he had been killed. It was totally, totally devastating. Like, I just, I mean, I kept asking myself whether it was real that Fr. Odia is dead. I couldn't, I couldn't come to terms with it.

That’s Emmanuel Ojeifo, a Catholic priest who attended seminary with Odia. Ojeifo, who is currently studying in the U.S., said he spoke to the slain priest just two weeks before his death on a Zoom call with their graduating class.

A Nigerian newspaper tracked 32 clergy kidnappings between January and July this year. Eighteen of them—more than half—were Catholic priests.

This month, a few police officers stood guard outside a Catholic church in Abuja on Sunday as worshippers sang and prayed inside. Church authorities later asked worshippers to stop bringing bags into the church over security concerns. It was only weeks earlier on Pentecost Sunday that gunmen killed 40 worshippers at St. Francis Xavier Catholic church in southwest Ondo state.

OJEIFO: You’d think that this is the result of a total collapse, a total breakdown of security in Nigeria, because I mean, it is not just priests, Catholic priests and Catholic churches that have been affected.

Authorities blamed the Islamic State West Africa Province for the Pentecost killings. But in many kidnapping cases, security officials point to unidentified gunmen. That complicates efforts to narrow down the motives for the kidnappings.

Ojeifo spoke last month with a fellow priest who survived his kidnapping experience. He said the priest asked his abductors why they target clergy.

OJEIFO: And he says these kidnappers tell him, well, we don't want too much heat on us. If we kidnap a politician, we know that the government will come all out for us. So we just look for soft targets, the ones that we can manage.

Armed abductors released Samuel Kanu-Uche, prelate of the Nigerian Methodist Church, and his colleagues after church members raised the $240,000 ransom in May. Kanu-Uche identified his captors in southeast Abia state as Fulani herders. The gang leader told him he became a kidnapper to provide for his family after losing his parents.

Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, has spoken to several Nigerian Christian leaders.

SHEA: And the worst aspect of it is that this is done with impunity, the government of Nigeria, the state governments are not protecting them. The national government does not hold anyone accountable for these attacks, there is no protection in the first place for them, there is no legal process. So we really don't know. I mean, it's on the burden of the government to find out who's behind this and what their motives are. And because they fail to do that, we're left to guess and piece it together.

Nearly 40 people remain in captivity since gunmen attacked passengers on a major train linking the capital Abuja to Kaduna state back in March. The education secretariat in Abuja shut down all schools this week over fears of impending attacks.

Shea said global leaders should take notice.

SHEA: So I think that the international community, and particularly the United States must pressure the President to fulfill his duty or to get out, he must fulfill his responsibility as President.

Ojeifo admits a sense of helplessness among Nigerians. They are frustrated with the ongoing violence and lack of action. There’s also doubt about how much foreign influence can change. For church leaders, he says such times call for courage.

OJEIFO: It doesn't mean that you put yourself in harm's way. But if the people of God continue to come to church, continue to ask for the sacraments and continue to come to Mass, who are you as a priest to say, I will not go to celebrate Mass because I'm afraid of being kidnapped, or I'm afraid of being killed. So, I mean, this is for me simply the age of martyrdom, the age of martyrdom has come back to the church in a very concrete way in Nigeria, and when we read the lives of the early martyrs, how they how they were slaughtered, how they were killed and attacked, we just see that this is what, what we are living through in these days.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Onize Ohikere in Abuja, Nigeria.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: It’s Thursday the 28th of July, 2022.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Paul Butler.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. First up on The World and Everything in It. Nigeria’s insecurity hits clergy members.

Islamist insurgents and armed criminal gangs have long terrorized northern Nigeria. But recent attacks directly targeting Christians and clergy members have spilled over into other regions of the country. WORLD’s Onize Ohikere reports from Abuja, Nigeria.

ONIZE OHIKERE, REPORTER: On June 26, abductors seized Reverend Christopher Odia on his way to Sunday Mass in southern Edo state.

OJEIFO: It was such a shock to hear that he was kidnapped, but even more shocking to eventually hear in the evening of that day that he had been killed. It was totally, totally devastating. Like, I just, I mean, I kept asking myself whether it was real that Fr. Odia is dead. I couldn't, I couldn't come to terms with it.

That’s Emmanuel Ojeifo, a Catholic priest who attended seminary with Odia. Ojeifo, who is currently studying in the U.S., said he spoke to the slain priest just two weeks before his death on a Zoom call with their graduating class.

A Nigerian newspaper tracked 32 clergy kidnappings between January and July this year. Eighteen of them—more than half—were Catholic priests.

This month, a few police officers stood guard outside a Catholic church in Abuja on Sunday as worshippers sang and prayed inside. Church authorities later asked worshippers to stop bringing bags into the church over security concerns. It was only weeks earlier on Pentecost Sunday that gunmen killed 40 worshippers at St. Francis Xavier Catholic church in southwest Ondo state.

OJEIFO: You’d think that this is the result of a total collapse, a total breakdown of security in Nigeria, because I mean, it is not just priests, Catholic priests and Catholic churches that have been affected.

Authorities blamed the Islamic State West Africa Province for the Pentecost killings. But in many kidnapping cases, security officials point to unidentified gunmen. That complicates efforts to narrow down the motives for the kidnappings.

Ojeifo spoke last month with a fellow priest who survived his kidnapping experience. He said the priest asked his abductors why they target clergy.

OJEIFO: And he says these kidnappers tell him, well, we don't want too much heat on us. If we kidnap a politician, we know that the government will come all out for us. So we just look for soft targets, the ones that we can manage.

Armed abductors released Samuel Kanu-Uche, prelate of the Nigerian Methodist Church, and his colleagues after church members raised the $240,000 ransom in May. Kanu-Uche identified his captors in southeast Abia state as Fulani herders. The gang leader told him he became a kidnapper to provide for his family after losing his parents.

Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, has spoken to several Nigerian Christian leaders.

SHEA: And the worst aspect of it is that this is done with impunity, the government of Nigeria, the state governments are not protecting them. The national government does not hold anyone accountable for these attacks, there is no protection in the first place for them, there is no legal process. So we really don't know. I mean, it's on the burden of the government to find out who's behind this and what their motives are. And because they fail to do that, we're left to guess and piece it together.

Nearly 40 people remain in captivity since gunmen attacked passengers on a major train linking the capital Abuja to Kaduna state back in March. The education secretariat in Abuja shut down all schools this week over fears of impending attacks.

Shea said global leaders should take notice.

SHEA: So I think that the international community, and particularly the United States must pressure the President to fulfill his duty or to get out, he must fulfill his responsibility as President.

Ojeifo admits a sense of helplessness among Nigerians. They are frustrated with the ongoing violence and lack of action. There’s also doubt about how much foreign influence can change. For church leaders, he says such times call for courage.

OJEIFO: It doesn't mean that you put yourself in harm's way. But if the people of God continue to come to church, continue to ask for the sacraments and continue to come to Mass, who are you as a priest to say, I will not go to celebrate Mass because I'm afraid of being kidnapped, or I'm afraid of being killed. So, I mean, this is for me simply the age of martyrdom, the age of martyrdom has come back to the church in a very concrete way in Nigeria, and when we read the lives of the early martyrs, how they how they were slaughtered, how they were killed and attacked, we just see that this is what, what we are living through in these days.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Onize Ohikere in Abuja, Nigeria.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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