Christians in Nigeria face violence and persecution in their homeland as militant group Boko Haram uses inequality and instability in the country to advance its ideology, a bishop has warned.
"Don’t sit by while Nigeria disintegrates," Bishop Hyacinth Egbebo, Vicar Apostolic of Bomadi, said in a Jan. 1 interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
If Boko Haram succeeds, the bishop continued, “the rest of Africa might easily fall prey to them. That would be an unimaginable humanitarian disaster.”
Bomadi is located in Nigeria's oil-rich yet impoverished Niger Delta, located in the south of the country.
The country – Africa's most populous, with over 160 million people, of which a little more than 80 million are Christian – is roughly divided into two regions: the more prosperous and largely Muslim north, and the resource-rich and mostly Christian south. Some 30 million Nigerians are Catholic.
Boko Haram, which means "Western education is sinful”, is a militant organization recognized as a terrorist group by the United States government in Sept. 2013. The organization, Bishop Egbebo said, "wants an Islamic state in the North, imposing shariah law on everyone." It views "everything that is an obstacle to implementing that goal" as an opportunity for violence, targeting Christian schools, churches, and people, especially due to Christianity's association with the West.
Even moderate Muslims have been assassinated by the Islamists for speaking out against them and for protecting churches from violence.
The bishop warned that if the organization succeeds in removing Christianity from the north "they would set their sights on the south" and the rest of Africa.
While "prominent Muslim leaders have spoken out against Boko Haram," he continued, there is also support for Boko Haram from political leaders, weapons suppliers, and sources of funding both inside and outside the country.
While Boko Haram is responsible for the deaths of close to 1,000 Christians in 2012 and at least 700 in 2013, the bishops "strongly condemned the murder of Muslims at the hand of Christians" in retaliation for violence against Christians, Bishop Egbebo stated.
The bishops' work has "prevailed however, in the face of Boko Haram’s effort to provoke Christians into acts of retaliation and create chaos in the country," he assured. Despite this, “some Christians fight back if they are attacked.”
Bishop Egbebo urged that one of the greatest challenges facing the country – and one of its greatest hopes at long-term stability – is to control corruption and promote stable economic systems.
"Boko Haram would fade out if people had the prospects of a decent life," he said, pointing out that the "Nigerian bishops regularly call on the government and urge reform,” in a country plagued by corruption.
Priests often "preach against corruption”, and because this corruption creates harsh economic conditions, there is “no hope to make a decent living, so many are easily drawn into a life of violence,” leading to the widespread instability that threatens the country's present and futures.
These factors have lead to a "palpable fear in Nigeria" about political and economic power shifting to the south, as the oil industry expands in the region.
In addition, Bishop Egbebo said, some fundamentalist Protestants "preach a Gospel of wealth," living lives of luxury and materialism that appeals to those who “long for material possessions.” Even still, the south remains poor, with "no electricity," poor roads, "no reliable schools or hospitals", and no water available to the people within the Apostolic Vicariate of Bomadi, he continued.
“We are dying of lack of food, for lack of very basic things.”
Nigerian Christians can contribute to the common good “by speaking truth and emphasizing the need for peace,” Bishop Egbebo said, adding that the Church “seeks to provide quality healthcare and education, as best we can.”
He added, however, that change "will come very slowly” to Nigeria. “Real reform will require very courageous and charismatic leadership.”