Rt Rev Dr Jude Arogundade, Bishop of Ondo, Nigeria has a resolute commitment to peace and justice that gained international attention after the 5th June 2022 gun attack at a packed church in his diocese. More than 40 worshippers were killed when extremists opened fire during the Pentecost Sunday Mass at St Francis Xavier, Church, Owo in Bishop Arogundade’s diocese of Ondo. The attack was one of the worst to befall a Christian community in Nigeria and was all the more shocking given that it took place in southern Nigeria, well away from conflict hotspots in the Middle Belt and Borno state in north-east Nigeria.
Bishop Jude has publicly backed a #RedWednesday petition (acnuk.org/petition-2022) organised by Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) UK, calling on the UK Government to demand the Nigerian authorities do more to bring to justice the perpetrators of violence, not just against Christians but Muslims and others too. He was the keynote at last week’s House of Lords launch of Aid to the Church in Need’s Persecuted and Forgotten? A Report on Christians oppressed for their Faith 2020-22, and afterwards he took time out to talk to William Kelly of www.thecatholicnetwork.co.uk, about the situation in Nigeria and his hopes for the future of the faith and his country …
WK: Bishop Jude, I’d like to start by asking you about the remarkable story of the man who survived the dreadful Islamist militant attack on St Francis Church in Owo, Ondo State, Nigeria on 5th June this year. Forty one parishioners, including four children, were murdered by assailants wielding AK-47 rifles and explosives as they worshipped, but I understand this man said he survived being shot thanks to the scapula he was wearing.
BJ: Yes, this man was a retired teacher. During the attack on St Francis Church on Pentecost Sunday, this man was shot, but the interesting thing was that the bullet went into his chest yet when I got there he was talking freely and was very lively. But he had been hit by a bullet in his chest; you could see the blood all over his garment. Then they took him to the operating room to extract the bullet and he kept telling me and telling them that it was because he wore the scapular that the bullet didn’t kill him, it had deflected the bullet. He has come to visit me two or three times since, and he is proud of his faith and he says that God was saying to him it wasn’t his time to die. I’ve never seen anyone shot right in the chest without dying! He survived it. But he lost his granddaughter, and that was traumatic for him. There was also a lady called Veronica, who suffered a spinal cord injury. She cannot use her two legs now, and she cannot control some of the functions of her body. We are still waiting to hear if there is any surgery that we can get that can correct any part of her body.
We lost 41 people, men, women and children. And we are just trying to recover from the trauma. The church is still under reconstruction – we plan it put it back the way it was, even better than it was before the attack came. So this is what we go through in Nigeria, and across Africa, especially where we have Boko Haram operating freely and we also have the issue of The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) – a militant splinter group of Boko Haram, which is just one of the groups operating with Islamic State (IS).
WK: How is this threat affecting Christians across Nigeria, and Catholics in particular?
BJ: The persecuted Church is always the strongest Church, that’s what I’ve come to see. Those people love their faith, they are so proud of it. They are prepared to do anything to protect the dignity of their faith and their own dignity. The remnants will survive, as they say, and since the St Francis attack in my diocese I have opened two new parishes for people coming back to the Church.
WK: And where are these new parishioners coming from?
BJ: They are mostly nominal Catholics who didn’t want to identify to anything particularly, but after the attack they suddenly woke up. ‘No-one can do this to us’, they said almost communally. So we decided to open the two new parishes and give them priests to begin for them the process to be declared a parish.
WK: Is this part of a broader trend across Africa?
BJ: Oh yes, we were evangelised by the Irish and from Europe generally but, as the faith seems to be going down in Europe and Ireland, the priests from Africa – from Nigeria, Ghana – are coming back to Europe to work. God has his own way of doing things. He has organised things so beautifully well. The Church will always survive; it’s the process of lifecycle – the Church has grown, it has aged in Europe and is dying but the remnants have survived and are bringing new life back to the Church and it will grow again to a full, fresh, vibrant and joyful Church in the future. That is what I see.
WK: And is that bringing new understandings of faith with it?
BJ: What I see among my people is that they see their faith as something necessary, something that is needed to lead a happy life, to come to terms with issues of life. Faith becomes a kind of answer to their questions of life, the tension that they go through every day. Their faith becomes a kind of explanation. Their relationship with God restores their strength, and their courage and their confidence is restored. It is so beautiful.
WK: But there is also a political dimension to their lives, isn’t there? I understand that actually Boko Haram has killed more Muslims than Christians and has been targeting mosques in Kano, Yobe and Borno states. How is the Muslim community in Nigeria dealing with the present crisis?
BJ: Some of these radical Muslims believe that those who are not like them are not Muslim enough, so many Muslims are under threat too, especially their leaders. It is said that we Christians have leaders that the congregation will listen to, but as a Muslim leader you dare not correct someone who wants to destroy everything.
When a student, Deborah Samuel, was stoned to death some months ago [for blasphemy] the spiritual leader of Muslims in Nigeria spoke out that this was against Islam. Radicals went into his palace with the intention of attacking him. So this is what we get. When the cartoon of Mohammed issue occurred on 2006 there were big riots in Nigeria. They had nothing to do with it but people were wanting to attack churches or whatever. They felt that that is the way to defend their religion. The ideology of their religion is that they automate, and their life is in service of their ideology. But in Christianity, ideology is in service of life – our schools, our hospitals, our social services are all in aid of life, to improve life, to make life good.
And this is the problem we have – there are those who have an ideology that you must not do this or that, this is how we see God and to do anything that is contrary to their view about God is forbidden, and they will take up arms and lay down their lives for that ideology. This is the opposite of our Christian ideology. When dreadful things happen we would show fear and ask ‘why did you do that’, but they are happy that someone has been killed in the protection of their ideology. We want to make the world a better place, be our brother’s keeper and to accept alternate views and everybody for who they are. But when an ideology becomes violent, thinking that you have to use your power to oppress and to gain advantage for yourself, it becomes something less entirely.
WK: But you are a vast country of nearly 200 million very diverse people. How do you think Christianity can help to heal wounds and bind the country together?
BJ: Many towns and cities in the north are really very poor, and the poverty is both the poverty of the mind, and of basic human needs. When you go to some towns in the north that have a long and ancient history, and you compare them with some of the new towns in the south that are predominantly Christian, you see in some of these older towns the wretchedness in some of these people because their ideology and their understanding of the world is about taking advantage of others, fighting and destroying whatever they have. And this religious division is a great catalyst for creating hatred and division and a lack of unity of purpose. Because they don’t have a shared understanding of life, everything is about just existence. There is no creativity, no life.
WK: So, you have come to the UK to speak with our legislators. What is it you are hoping to get from your discussions here?
BJ: The British government and people can truly offer their support. Our education system is trying to develop – many of our doctors and students are here in the UK studying. You would have expected that with the co-operation that has existed for so long between Nigeria and the United Kingdom that our leaders would have been using that opportunity to build our society, building our resources and our cities. If you build something that is beautiful, but you do not have the people of the right character to enhance and improve it, it becomes counterproductive, and it gets run down anyway. You have to change the mentality, you have to send spirituality – if you just send finances, if you send money, people don’t know what to do with it, they just buy more bombs and more guns.
WK: It sounds like you are saying that there’s a need to create a change of purpose and focus amongst Nigeria’s leaders, to reflect more concern for others rather than self. Is that the heart of the problem?
BJ: Oh yes, I still believe that our problem in Nigeria is that people use religion and other things to persuade people to vote for government, for individuals who don’t have even a basic understanding of leadership and governance. Some of these people, when they get money or they come to power, they are just not coordinated; they don’t know what is really needed, and then they just mess up the life of the people. We need to begin to elect more good people, people of character who have a good sense of right and wrong. We just hope and pray that we can get good people.
WK: Given the great size of Nigeria, and the religious and economic differences that exist across the country, might it make sense to almost break up Nigeria into smaller, more manageable and more governable regions? Does Nigeria need to reduce to regional authorities with devolved powers, perhaps in a similar way we have here in the United Kingdom?
BJ: For sure. We used to run a kind of regional government, but then the military came and established a unitary government where everything is under the control of the president of Nigeria, without a doubt the most powerful president I have ever seen! But we want a country where you allow the regions to have some level of autonomy, where we all grow together as Nigerians. That is what people have been talking about, and especially that there should be a kind of restructuring of the country to get us out of this present quagmire.
WK: But would that lead to some regions of Nigeria – especially in the poorer north – becoming predominantly Muslim, and would people accept that?
BJ: There’s the funny thing about Nigeria, they would never accept to suceed because the strength of the country, the lifeblood of the country, is in the south. That’s where the education is, that’s where the fertile land is, where so many things are. I just wish and hope that we can find a solution in a way that the country can be reorganised, but letting everyone determine their own future, and determine how they want to live.
WK: What do you want people to do, both here and at home?
BJ: Simply put we want people to assist the country to get the right people into government, people who are not thinking about their self-interests but the interests of all Nigerians. We want those who will do whatever they can within their powers to improve the quality of life – by education, good health care, good environment – to bring all those beautiful ideas of the 21st century to the country. But the most pressing thing is how to stop the violence. If that is stopped we can all can all come to the table and talk. And that’s the problem, we haven’t been talking we’ve been yelling at one another. When the violence has been sorted, we can talk and come up with a better constitution than we have now. It’s a mess. It needs to be sorted.
WK: And how can Catholics here in the UK help?
BJ: By making your presence known, to your local MPs and government ministers. That’s the strongest thing you can do, to make your presence known, and that you are willing to do something about injustices. And not just in Nigeria, but wherever people are tortured, maimed and killed for what they believe, or don’t believe. If people know that you know, and are willing to do something about it, they will have to listen.
And please don’t forget to pray for us, and all those suffering persecution for their beliefs.
More persecution is taking place in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world and a sudden surge in violence has put the faithful in greater danger than ever.
For more information about how you can help the Church in Nigeria: