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UK: Nigerian Anglican Archbishop Addresses Islamic Persecution to House of Lords

UK: Nigerian Anglican Archbishop Addresses Islamic Persecution to House of Lords

By Archbishop Nicholas Okoh
May 24th

Bishop Justin Welby welcomed the Primate of Nigeria, the Most Rev Nicholas Okoh. Noting that the Church in Northern Nigeria is in a position of exceptional suffering, he said that we honour those in the suffering church by focusing on the suffering of the church this evening. He asked the Archbishop to outline the situation in Northern Nigeria.

Archbishop Okoh: In Nigeria today the main issue is the state of insecurity in the land because after the General Election which brought the president into power, some people took to the streets to demonstrate. Both international and local observers judged the election to be free and fair. We as bishops were observers. We observed no irregularity.

There was a widespread demonstration in the north. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that it was pre-planned. It took off almost immediately. It was sponsored by political opponents.

The government set up a panel to make a report and recommended that the government make compensation. People were killed and businesses set on fire. But no compensation has been made yet.

There is also the new aspect of Boko Haram. The bombing has been intensified. It spread from Maidugiri to Potiskum to Bauchi to Gombe to Jos and later to Kano. It became a very worrisome situation.

The police HQ in Abuja was bombed to stop the police from responding and so also the United Nations building. The government was trying to manage the situation. But then the bombers went to attack a church on Christmas Day. This was deliberately designed to generate provocation, since Christians were attacked when they were celebrating Christ's birthday. Gunmen went into the church and sprayed worshippers with bullets in Adamawa state. The government has taken some steps. We met the government as members of the Christian Association of Nigeria several times and have asked for the government to do its job and solve the problem.

The government appears to have been slow. Unfortunately it seems that government agencies have been infiltrated. And the Government has not been prepared for this kind of situation.

We heard of such attacks in Algeria and elsewhere before but never thought it would be part of Nigerian daily life.

The government tried to declare a state of emergency in 17 local governments. Whether this will be effective or not remains to be seen. The experience has been that when you clamp down here the bombers move to another place.

The man who organised the bombing at Madala was arrested but later we were told that he had escaped. This confirms the suspicion that the security agencies have been infiltrated. The government has asked for help hoping that the experience of the security forces in Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be helpful.

Christians are facing a serious moral challenge. They see young people moving around killing people. Christians generally just fold their hands and look on helplessly at businesses being looted that have been funded with borrowed money. If you survive you thank God.

The killings in Kano were all tolerated until the leader gave an order that the southerners in the north should move back south and vice versa. This brought Nigeria to a halt. We had to withdraw young people from schools because the roads were clogged up by large numbers of people moving both south and north.

CAN became aware that some Christians were thinking that to be killed would be martyrdom. CAN said: "No - it is important for you to defend yourself if you can. Or else, leave and do not submit yourself to be killed."

It is important to get the whole situation under control. The military authorities are improving their strategies.

We met with Tony Blair - both Christian and Muslim leaders were there. He promised to take up the matter.

Whenever there was any bomb explosion Muslims would condemn it. But we wanted them to bring the bombers under control. It is easier for the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs to bring Boko Haram under control. But we learnt that Boko Haram does not take instructions from the Sultan who is the chairman of the Supreme Council. Giving him the assignment of bringing them under control is not likely to be effective.

There is a need to intensify the security effort. The killing in Sokoto of British and Italian nationals heightened the tension.

To go to church in Nigeria one has to have a bomb and gun check. Many are uncomfortable with this. You have to decide whether you subject yourself to harassment or stay at home. For every programme, day or night, you have to get the police and block the road leading to the church with barriers strong enough to withstand a ran raid.

It is not strictly speaking Christians versus Moslems. The bombers are not representative of Moslems, but a sect that has broken loose from control. It is possible that among the Muslims there are sympathisers with Boko Haram. Some even fund it. But these are not the mainstream of Islam. The mainstream of Islam is as baffled as others.

Discussion

Baroness Cox Thank you for your church holding the front line of freedom and faith. In Indonesia the Lakshar group began a militant campaign against the Christians. So the President of the country became president of a new organisation, the National Organisation for Reconciliation and Reconstruction which included traditional Muslim leaders and Christian leaders. Would a similar route be possible in Nigeria?

Archbishop Okoh: Christian and Muslim leaders would buy the suggestion. But the problem would be the outrageous demands of Boko Haram.. They want the islamisation of Nigeria. They want the abolition of western education. Even if Muslim leaders under The Supreme Council came with Christian leaders they cannot control Boko Haram. We have not been effectual in this matter. The people we are discussing with do not have influence over Bokoh Haram. The Bokoh Haram threatened to bring President Jonathan down in three months.

The response from the Nigeria Delta militants was that if that happened they would close down Nigeria by shutting off the oil.

The Bishop of Guildford. What does this mean for Islamisation? Are they asking for civil war?

Archbishop Okoh When the leader of Boko Haram issued the instruction that people from the south should return to the south from the north and people from the north shuld return from the south to the north there was real fear. We have gone through a civll war before. The same sort of call to return to one's area of origin happened before that civil war.

A religious war is too much for us. It is better to tolerate and endure ridicule by our own members to save people from civil war which would have happened had we responded as we had been provoked. Boko Haram has called in the next six months for the south east to convert to Islam and that if they failed to convert they will bomb them. It came to a point that it was almost "Let's start if we have to." So the leadership of the church spoke to people that the church has gone through a lot of suffering already and has emerged strong and able. In the interests of children and the aged, it is not easy to go through a civil war - it is social madness. It is better to keep away from this.

The president said he is making progress. Some arrests have been made. Christians and Moslems from the USA came to see us and observed that some of the people arrested were not punished. The explanation of the President was that his oath of office required him to preserve Nigeria as one country. To dash into a process to divide Nigeria would not be wise. A dialogue has actually started with the Bokoh Haram but it has broken down and we do not know what will happen next. The question is whether the people who are fronting for Boko Haram in the negotiations are actually members of Boko Haram..

Robert de Berry: Should we do anything to help reconstruction given the insecurity.

Archbishop Okoh: Any funds to help should be channelled through the Province - and you will be advised on the timing. We have our own Provincial Relief fund. We did make a mistake. We gave 3 million naira to rebuild a church and its buildings and others made contributions. But the situation became so serious that the bishop had to abandon the location.

Lord Hilton: It is being said that Iranian and Saudi money is coming in to Boko Haram.

Archbishop Okoh It is being said but I have no evidence. It is suspected that help for the terrorists was also coming from Libya before the death of Gadaffi. It is also claimed that the terrorists are being trained in Pakistan, Somalia and Afghanistan. But we cannot say whether this is true.

Lord Elton. Can you seek to draw from the experience in Northern Ireland very quickly since such knowledge evaporates quickly. And has the army been infiltrated?

Archbishop Okoh. The military, the army, navy and air force, has remained neutral,. The police is nearest to the people - that is where the problem is. A Commissioner of Police was dismissed because he allowed the person arrested in connection with bombings to escape. A Commissioner was arrested, found guilty and dismissed.

The government can handle the police situation if it can retrain the police. Your government can be a great help here in retraining the police.

Bishop Henry Scriven. Media reports suggest that the violence and provocation are equally from both sides. Surely Christians are not responding in the same ways.

Archbishop Okoh: The church in Nigeria has never initiated hostility. In one extreme situation when there was the Danish cartoon issue, so many people were killed that there was a reaction at Onitsha. But to say that Christians are taking up arms to kill people - no. Journalists write depending on where their sympathy lies. The Church in Nigeria has never initiated hostility. In remote villages - may be, but as a co-ordinated response it has never happened.

Lord Curry: If the president clamped down would it not move the moslem community to support Boko Haram?

Some Moslems would feel bad. Whether they come out openly or not, some have sympathy for Boko Haram. We are not unaware that that might happen.

Question: What can we do here to support you?

Archbishop Okoh The first thing you can do here is this. The UK used to be a foremost Christian country. But so many things have happened to change that. When you give one concession to some people they ask for four. Christianity must be brought back to the centre of national life. Then you will be in a position to provide leadership for Christian life.

If your situation is that Christians are sacked for praying, the muslims will be quoting it to us. You give out your churches to be mosques. The muslims will then say that Britain with all its majestic history is doing this and ask us Nigerian Christians: "Are you holier than the pope?" This is an opportunity - get your leaders and bishops to bring back Christianity into the centre of British life. If you do that you will energise those looking up to you for leadership. We will be in a position to interact. We can then depend on each other.

And what is the Christianity you offer? Those of us who have roots with you are being taunted that we belong to those people's ( the homosexuals') church. As a result we lose our evangelistic thrust. When we bring our pains to you– we are told we have antediluvian views.

Question: How can we assist the Nigerian government to prosecute those arrested?

Archbishop Okoh: Boko Haram are saying: "Give us trial or release us." The government should be asked to provide speedy trial.

Kingsley Donaldson from Causeway Trust: Northern Ireland is like Nigeria in many ways - a story of weak structures, corrupt security and weak community leaders.

Archbishop Okoh: Some political opponents of Mr President are using Boko Haram for their ends. Politicians are involved. It takes a lot of money to buy a bomb and an AK47. Where did they get the knowledge to make a bomb if not from western education which the name of their movement ( No more western education) derides?

Chief Gabriel Adebayo The need is to entrench democracy. The Nigerian Government appears helpless. There should be help to provide security. The security network in Britain makes it impossible to go into church and kill people.

Archbishop Okoh: It is the Nigerian Government who will need to invite you to come before you begin to spread your wares. The Government does not want to externalise the issue. Boko Haram has international connections but we do not know to which group. This requires proper study. If you ask Israel for help - the terrorist organisations against Israel will be your enemy too.

Question: Are you (as the Anglican Church) in a position to ask for help with police or should it come from your Government?

Archbishop Okoh: We can make the suggestion - this is the area in which we have a need. If Britain is prepared to help us, this is something we should explore.

Bishop of Durham. This has been a memorable evening which will stay with us for many, many years. You have given us a presentation which has been straightforward and transparent. You have shown great integrity and have said you made mistakes. You have been giving answers that are not quick but are worthy of further reflection. You have not hesitated to challenge us.

What you have done this evening makes me reflect again on the genius of Nigeria. One of the potential and actual great powers of Nigeria is to inspire and challenge others. On behalf of all of us - thank you your grace.

END

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