Jos, Nigeria - Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, a city in northern Nigeria, has stressed the importance of remaining present to his people despite the looming threat posed by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram.
"I go out. I never miss any public functions or ceremonies. That tells (my priest and religious) that I am with them, and with the people," Archbishop Kaigama told Aid to the Church in Need while in New York recently. "I go out in public, wearing my formal garb, to be present."
"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."
Stating that what Nigerians need most is comfort, he said: "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."
Boko Haram, which means "Western education is sinful," launched an uprising in 2009 and hopes to impose sharia law on Nigeria. It has targeted security forces, politicians, Christian minorities and moderate Muslims in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north.
Its attacks in 2009 alone have killed more than 2,000. In Jos, Archbishop Kaigama's cathedral city, May 20 bombings killed 118 and injured 56.
"At first we thought that they were simply against Western education and wanted to propagate what they believed was the authentic message of Islam," the archbishop said. "Then they went after the government, and next came the churches.
"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."
He said that "we do our best to create harmony and understanding," noting in particular the Nigeria Interreligious Council, which "explore(s) where we come together and where we differ. We are not just fighting each other – that is a misleading caricature of our country."
While there are irreconciliable differences of belief between Christians and Muslims, Archbishop Kaigama said of dialogue that "it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness."
"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 … '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."
The Catholic Church, he said, "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," Archbishop Kaigama added. "I thought my work was just to bless people … but I also have to worry about water and electricity."
He lamented the Nigerian government's seeming inability both to defeat Boko Haram and to govern.
"Our leaders simply are not very sensitive to the poor, even when aid is available."
There are "serious sympathizers" of the Islamist group "both in and outside Nigeria," he said, but "up to now our government has not been able to smoke them out … 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."
"Despite lots of money spent by our government and the military, answers are still grossly lacking."
Amnesty Intertional reported Aug. 4 that the Nigerian military has, in its fight against Boko Haram, committed atrocities such as extrajudicial executions.
Mentioning the April abduction by Boko Haram of nearly 300 teenage schoolgirls – of whom 60 escaped, while the rest remain kidnapped – Archbishop Kaigama said that "contrary to my expectations, nothing much has happened, even in the wake of the abduction of the schoolgirls which made headlines around the world."
Archbishop Kaigama concluded, saying that Boko Haram's violence does make him afraid. "Yes, it is normal to be afraid," he said.
"But given my task, I have given up everything to serve God and his people," the archbishop said. "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."