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‘A Church that will be a mother’ - Nigerian bishop aims for peace

Bishop John Bakeni. Credit: Diocese of Maiduguri.

The Diocese of Maiduguri, which contains the whole of the Borno state, is the epicenter of violence against Christians in Nigeria.

The Boko Haram terrorist organization calls Borno its home, and is responsible for more than 35,000 deaths in the Nigerian state. In 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 female students from a secondary school at in the state — more than 100 of those girls are still missing.

It was not by accident that a specialist in ecumenical dialogue was appointed recently an auxiliary bishop in the Maiduguri diocese.

Bishop John Bakeni, consecrated July 7 an auxiliary bishop of Maiduguri, has an academic and pastoral focus on ecumenism, including a doctorate focused on ecumenical dialogue from the Pontifical University St. Thomas.

After Bishop Bakeni’s episcopal ordination, he talked with The Pillar about the future of the Church in Nigeria, especially amid a surge of the kidnapping and killing of priests, ongoing political unrest, and little hope among most Nigerians for an end to the violence.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations on your recent ordination. During the liturgy, the Borno chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria said that your appointment signals hope for the Church in this part of Nigeria.

What kind of hope is there among Christians in Nigeria in the face of persecution?

Well, as Christians, we are a people of hope and are defined by hope because of our faith in Jesus Christ and the assurance therein.

You know, I have been the Christian Association of Nigeria’s assistant chairman for the Borno chapter for the past six years. I have worked with the state executives, local religious leaders, and the heads of denominations, and indeed the entire Christendom in Borno peacefully — contributing my little part to the building of the body of Christ here in Borno.

We have worked collectively to ensure that Christians and Muslims live in peace despite the challenges posed by the Boko Haram insurgency.

The hope of Christians in Nigeria is captured in St. Paul’s exhortation to the Romans in chapter 5: 2ff: “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God…”

Or Romans 12:2 -”Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”

Unlike worldly hope, biblical hope is not based on efforts or desires, it is something received.

Priests are being kidnapped and sometimes killed in Nigeria, as are other Christians.  What are your fears about being a Christian in northern Nigeria?

Apart from the persecution and other forms of discrimination, the issue you raised above is a new reality in Nigeria and is fast becoming the order of the day.

Christians in Nigeria’s north have learned over time to live with and cope with the different forms of sufferings and discrimination, so the fear and the challenges have always been there, but the grace of God has always been there for us.

But this new dimension is more worrisome and raises a lot of concern, where the priests and pastors, and other Christians are visibly targeted.

Many have been killed, some were able to regain freedom, many are still in captivity.

The fears are summed up in the fact that as a Christian, you live each day as grace because you are not sure of what will happen next.

There is indeed a cloud of fear and uncertainty that hovers over the Christians in northern Nigeria.

Across Africa there is widespread unemployment, illiteracy and belligerent behavior among an army of young people who are frustrated.

In that context, what kind of Church do you envision for young people across the African continent?

The youth are the greatest assets that we have, but unfortunately, they are not given the space and the enabling environment to unleash their full potentials so as to secure their future.

I envisage a Church that will listen to the youth, understanding their yearnings, meet them where they are, encourage and mentor them, empower them and create the appropriate space and environment for them.

A Church that will put her resources at the service of the youth.

A Church that will be a mother and have room for everybody especially those on the periphery and margins of life.

You are an auxiliary bishop in the area where Boko Haram is located, in a nation that has a penchant for division along the lines of religion and ethnicity.

There is talk about the importance of Christian dialogue with Muslims, aimed towards ensuring peaceful co-existence. What do you think you might bring to the table in that dialogue?

I am not sure if I will be bringing sometime new on the table in this regard.

You know, this is one area I have a passion for and is very dear to me. Not just because of my educational background but I think it is rooted in family values and how I have been raised: I was taught to respect and accept people of every tribe, religion and affiliation.

My education has reinvigorated this passion in me.

As a bishop, I will simply continue with I have been doing before but may be in a more intense, systematic and versatile way.

What is new is the birth of a Centre for Sustainable Peacebuilding and Interfaith Dialogue that has come up with my appointment as the auxiliary bishop of Maiduguri Diocese, of which I am one of the directors at the moment.

Are there specific ways that local and international partners can reach out to their suffering brothers and sisters in Nigeria?

Yes, of course, I have always made this passionate appeal in my international trips and conferences that international partners and organizations have a lot to do in reaching out to their brothers and sisters who are suffering in Nigeria, especially those in northern Nigeria.

Christians in Northern Nigeria suffer discrimination and persecution because of their faith. They suffer political exclusion and other forms of exclusions.

Our international partners can help by first of all praying for us. Second and more practically by supporting us financially and materially so that Christians can build decent livelihoods.

Where possible they can influence our government to entrench true democracy where the freedom and security of every citizen will be guaranteed and secured.

They can influence the government to check and prevent the systematic and endemic discrimination and exclusion of Christians and minorities.

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