I have a special relationship with the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto. I spent the first two years of my priestly life and ministry in that Diocese. Then it was quite tough to live there as a Christian. Now, for a number of reasons, it still is.
The Diocese is geographically vast. Its area is larger than the whole of Ghana. It covers Sokoto State, Zamfara State, and Katsina State. Hostility to Christians in Sokoto is not latent. The Dominican friars who came to Nigeria to found the Diocese knew living and working in Sokoto was no tea party.
The Catholic Diocese of Sokoto survives thanks to divine providence. It has lost a seminarian and a visiting priest to assassins. St Theresa’s Church in Funtua was set ablaze during religious riots in March 1987 and during post presidential election riots in 2011. St Jude’s Church in Tshafe, one of the Churches in which I served, was burnt during the March 1987 riots, on December 31, 1988, and during the post presidential election riots of 2011. In June 2021, the Catholic Church in Malumfashi was invaded by gunmen in the middle of the night. Two priests were abducted. The lifeless body of one of them was found near the Church the following day.
Arsonists were less than 100 meters from the Dominican Sisters’ Convent in Gusau during the post presidential election riots of 2011 when security agents came to their rescue. I was thinking of that on May 14, 2022 as I spoke on the phone to one of the Dominican sisters in their hiding place as the riots began. These are human beings and citizens of Nigeria.
I am writing this on the morning of May 15, 2022 with a divided attention. My attention is divided between watching a Mass of canonization taking place at St Peter’s Square in Rome and monitoring the situation in Sokoto.
The city of Sokoto has been in tension since the murder of Deborah Samuel on May 12, 2022. She was killed by those who arrogated to themselves power over life and death. Without any trial, she was accused, and ipso facto, convicted of blasphemy, stoned to death, and her corpse set ablaze.
Deborah did not break any of Nigeria’s laws. Her murderers accused her of blasphemy, precisely of insulting the prophet of Islam. No civilized person would denigrate another person’s religion. But the conversation on the WhatsApp forum on which the accusation was anchored, when carefully examined, does not provide any evidence that she insulted the prophet.
Moreover, Nigeria’s constitution does not permit extra judicial killing. Neither does it permit citizens to take laws into their hands. Nigerian laws prescribe that an aggrieved party seek redress in a way that follows due judicial process. Nigerian laws recognize that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty in a lawfully constituted court sitting in a lawfully prescribed manner. But this young student of Shehu Shagari College of Education was extra judicially and gruesomely murdered.
Some suspects were arrested by security agents. But some sympathisers of the suspects took to the streets on the morning of Saturday, May 14, 2022, protesting their arrests. They matched to the palace of the Sultan of Sokoto, the leader of Muslims, who had rightly condemned this act of extra judicial murder, targeted the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, an ECWA Church, the Catholic Diocesan Chancery and anything related to the Catholic Church. St Kevin’s Catholic Church in Sokoto was set ablaze.
There is a relationship between what has been going on in Sokoto these past few days and what is going in Rome as I write this piece. The similarity is in circumstances in which Charles de Foucauld, one of those being canonized, was killed, and the circumstances in which Deborah Samuel was killed.
St Charles de Foucauld (September 15, 1858-December 1, 1916) was a Christian missionary hermit who lived among the Tuareg in the Sahara Desert. As a missionary, he translated the Gospel into the Tuareg language. His contribution to propagation of Tuareg culture also includes his publication of the first bilingual Tuareg-French dictionary, and the reproduction of thousands of lines of Tuareg poetry showcasing Tuareg ancestral customs.
As a Christian missionary, Charles de Foucauld did not force anyone to be converted to Christianity. He did not impose Christianity on anyone. He simply bore witness to the Gospel by his goodness, by making friends with everyone, and by fighting against slavery in Beni Abbes at the Moroccan border. In his own words, “Loving God, loving people is my whole life; may it always be my whole life. This is what I hope for.”
But, even more than his words, the goodness he radiated was his way of bearing witness to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that God reigns even in the midst of hatred and violence perpetrated by some people “in the name of God”.
Despite the love he radiated, despite his laudable contributions to showcasing Tuareg culture, he was murdered on December 1, 1916. On that day, his hermitage in Tamanrasset, southern Algeria, was surrounded by an armed tribal group in alliance with the Senussi Bedouins. They killed a just man.
A century after de Foucauld was murdered, Deborah Samuel met a violent death in the hands of those who would use the name of God to justify murder.
As the Mass in which Pope Francis proclaimed him a saint was being offered at St Peter’s Square in Rome, the Church in the city of Sokoto is unable to gather to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass this Sunday. Sequel to violent protests that took place on Saturday morning, Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwal imposed a 24-hour curfew on the city while Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto has said there would be no public Mass because of the curfew.
What we know, at this moment, is that lives and property of Christians, as well as Christian places of worship have been targets of attack, and those attacking them are Muslims. What we know is that Christians are on the receiving end of persecution, and those who are persecuting them are Muslims. Does it then mean the problem is religion?
Opinion is somewhat divided as to the cause of the tension in Sokoto. Some say it is religion. Some say it is not. Yet, it is important to rightly identify the cause so that we do not proffer a wrong therapy.
Indeed, the problem is religion. But I refuse to blame the religion of Islam for this. The problem is neither the religion of Islam nor the religion of Christianity. It is Machiavellian politics turned into a religion in a state that is either unable or unwilling to protect life and property of citizens. The sad reality is that, today in Nigeria, some people kill in the name of their religious beliefs, some kill in the name of their political beliefs, while some kill for money ritual. This is what happens when criminal behaviour is exhibited while criminals wear the toga of an ideology.
There are scholars of Islam who have come out to refute the argument that the religion of Islam prescribes capital punishment for blasphemy. And, while it is the case that some passages in the Bible would tend to suggest that killing in the name of God is supported by the Bible, the political context out of which Saul was ordered “by God” to commit the genocidal act of exterminating the Amalekites, as well as Jesus’ teaching on love of enemies call those who would use the Bible to justify killing of apostates, heretics and blasphemers to order.
Since the Church in the city of Sokoto is unable to gather to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass this Sunday, I offered the holy sacrifice this morning asking the crucified and risen Lord to grant wisdom, courage and patience to its Bishop and to the people of God in Sokoto.
The words of the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount come to mind: “Blessed are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven; this is how they persecuted the prophets before you” (Matthew 5:11—12).
God is great. But those who commit murder and arson, and those who sponsor and justify them, even if they claim to do so in the name of God, are little. Those who use the name of God to justify criminal behaviour are the real blasphemers.
© Father Anthony Akinwale, OP