Lessons for the Nigerian Church in North Africa

Last year, one of my minor seminary classmates and a missionary priest shared photos of gothic cathedrals in Tunisia on our WhatsApp alumni platform. He explained that these churches were converted to mundane uses.

Another priest who was so shocked that I was asked, “What happened? Everyone who commented on the matter wondered “why” and “how” this would happen to a once populous Catholic country.

Immediately, I remembered how, a few years ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned Hagia Sophia, the largest “cathedral” in the world, into a mosque.

The writer became curious about the Church in North Africa. Surprisingly, I discovered that there were 60 dioceses in Tunisia before the country’s independence in 1956. Unfortunately, Tunisia is now about 98% Islamic.

The country has only one diocese, the Archdiocese of Tunis. The other 59 dioceses only exist on paper. They are granted to cardinals and auxiliary bishops who do not enjoy the power of jurisdiction.

The reader might wonder, “What happened to cathedrals, basilicas and churches? Well, these holy places have been converted into museums, theaters, libraries, clinics, etc.

Because Latin was difficult, the insistence on teaching catechesis or preaching in Latin with poor translation gave Islam an advantage

From Morocco to Libya, the Berbers are found in large numbers. In Tunisia, the Arabs expelled the native Berbers into the desert. It is estimated that there are only around 5,000 Berbers left in Tunisia.

Currently, in Mali, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Chad and the Republic of Niger, there is a significant decline in the adoption and practice of the Christian faith. Although this can be attributed to the trans-Saharan slave trade, other factors are responsible.

First, faith did not incarnate. Because Latin was difficult, the insistence on teaching catechesis or preaching in Latin with poor translation gave Islam an advantage.

The Berbers viewed the Christian faith as a foreign invasion since their local language and traditions did not matter. Moreover, while Islam embraced the principle of assimilation, Christianity was content with association.

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The Romans and Byzantines did not have the presence of mind to assimilate the native Berbers. This is what prepared the coffin that will eventually bury the Church in the Islamic Maghreb.

Second, while Islam built capacity and economically empowered its adherents, Christianity continued to emphasize hierarchy, tradition, and erect cathedrals.

Again, little emphasis has been placed on teaching sound catechesis and empowering the laity. Like the soldier ants for sugar water, when Islam arrived it was quite easy for Christians who were not grounded in the faith to change paths. The Church suffers from it.

Third, the Church suffered from schisms. For example, Donatism, named after a Berber Christian bishop, Donatus Magnus, held that the dignity of the minister determines the efficacy of the sacrament.

Donatism flourished in the Christian community of the Roman province of Africa (Tunisia/north-eastern Algeria and western Libya) from the 4th century.

Similarly, the Melitians, also known as the Church of the Martyrs, were an early Christian sect founded in Egypt around 306 by Bishop Melitius of Lycopolis who rebelled against the episcopal authority of Peter, Bishop of Alexandria. Therefore, he and his followers separated from the Catholic Church. The absence of a strong monastic tradition also affected the Church. What followed was injurious to the faith.

Fourth, constant war, conquest and persecution forced Christians, including those who had brought the faith, to emigrate to Europe. Unfortunately, they left the Berbers to their fate.

More than 1,300 years later, the situation of Christians in northern Nigeria is similar to what their Christian brothers suffered in the Islamic Maghreb

Arab invaders invaded the territory. With jihad as a principle of war, Christianity in North Africa met its Waterloo after the region was conquered by the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate between 647 and 709 AD.

More than 1,300 years later, the situation of Christians in northern Nigeria is similar to that suffered by their Christian brothers in the Islamic Maghreb.

There are three phases in the arrival of the faith in northern Nigeria: first, from 1857, Samuel Ajayi Crowther founded missions in Rabba and Masaba; Second, from 1888 to 1900, the Sudanese Party and the military headquarters movement came to Lokoja; and third, from 1900 to 1918, new converts were recruited among the Hausa-Fulani in towns like Zaria, Funtua, Kano and Gusau.

The giant steps of Father Oswald Waller and his companions, who arrived in Shendam on February 12, 1907, gave birth to three Catholic provinces in North/North-Central Nigeria with 22 dioceses.

Despite these achievements, like the Church in North Africa, the faith has not been fully embodied. With the exception of the Church of Makurdi, Gboko and Otukpo, the faith has not been indigenized in the other dioceses in northern Nigeria.

For example, the liturgical books (sacramentary, catechism and prayer sheets) are always in English or Hausa, the popular lingua franca.

Despite the ordination of thousands of local priests, many dioceses are content with quasi-liturgical inculturation without adequate training in theological inculturation.

Christian girls are forcibly Islamized without qualms. Boko Haram sect ransacks Christian villages in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states

In northern Nigeria, the threat of Islamic jihad is real. Increasingly, Muslims are empowered by their fellows in government. Through the Islamic bank and other supporting organizations, they build capacity and economically empower their members by providing loans on favorable terms. With the promise of a better life, young Christians are easily drawn to Islam.

In addition, Christians face discrimination in employment and admission. In most cases, they must use Hausa or Arabic names to access government jobs. Land is not sold for building churches. And where these exist, the certificate of occupancy is revoked.

Christian girls are forcibly Islamized without qualms. The Boko Haram sect ransacks Christian villages in the states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. Killer shepherds and armed bandits are also on the prowl.

It was only recently that Genocide Watch reported that “Nigeria is a killing ground for helpless Christians”. According to their report, 350 Nigerians have been massacred in the first two months of 2020, 11,500 have been murdered since 2015, 4-5 million have been displaced and 2,000 churches have been destroyed. Other Christians flee to safer places where they can sleep with two eyes.

In conclusion, the Church in Northern Nigeria can survive if it deliberately attempts to embody the faith through theological inculturation. This should include teaching catechesis in a wholesome and engaging way. This would prepare the faithful for any form of persecution.

Without prejudice to the construction of cathedrals and churches, the laity must also be trained and supported to embrace entrepreneurship. This would reduce any form of incitement to give up the faith for another. If the Church does not make hay while the sun is shining, we may end up with Melitians or Donatists offering the Church to the highest bidder.

Father Justine Dyikuk is a lecturer in mass communication at the University of Jos, editor of a Caritas newspaper and organizer of the Media Team Network Initiative (MTNI) in Nigeria. E-mail: [email protected] The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.