The Church in Nigeria: Lessons from North Africa

Last year, a classmate of mine in the minor seminary and a missionary priest shared some photos of gothic cathedrals in Tunisia on our Alumni WhatsApp platform. He explained that these churches were converted to mundane uses. Another priest, as shocked as me, asked, “What happened? Everyone who commented on the matter wondered “why” and “how” this would happen to a once populous Catholic country. Immediately, I recalled how, a few years ago, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had transformed Hagia Sophia, the largest “cathedral” in the world, into a mosque.

I became curious about the Church in North Africa. Amazingly, 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.

The same is true throughout North Africa. 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. From being a stronghold of Catholicism in the early Church, North Africa was overwhelmed by Islam and is now almost entirely Muslim. How did this happen and what can the Church in Nigeria learn from it?

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 has embraced the principle of assimilationChristianity was content with association. 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, Donatismnotnamed after the Berber Christian bishop Donat Magnus, argued 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/NOTnortheastern Algeria and western Libya) of 4and-5and centuries. Likewise, the Melitians, also known as Church of the Martyrs, was a early christian sect which was founded in Egypt circa 306 by Bishop Melice of Lycopolis, who rebelled against the episcopal authority of Peter, Bishop of Alexandria. Therefore, he and his followers broke with 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 brought the faith, to migrate to Europe. Unfortunately, they left the Berbers to their fate. Arab invaders ran into 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 647-709.

More than 1,300 years later, the situation for Christians in northern Nigeria is similar to what their Christian brothers have suffered in the Islamic Maghreb. There are three phases in the coming of the faith to northern Nigeria: first, in 1857 Samuel Ajayi Crowther founded missions at Rabba and Masaba; second, between 1888 and 1900, the Sudanese Party and the military headquarters movement arrived in 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 Fr. 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 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.

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 ancillary 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.

Also, Christians are discriminated against in employment and admission. In most cases, they must use Hausa or Arabic names to access government jobs. The land is not sold for the construction of churches. And where these exist, the certificate of occupancy is revoked. Christian girls are forcibly Islamized without qualms. The Boko Haram sect is looting Christian villages in the states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. Killer shepherds and armed bandits are also on the prowl.

Only recently, Genocide monitoring reported that “Nigeria is a killing ground for defenseless Christians”. According to this report, 350 Nigerians were massacred in the first two months of 2020; 11,500 have been murdered since 2015; between four and five million have been displaced; and 2,000 churches were destroyed. Other Christians flee to safer places where they can sleep with both eyes closed.

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 building cathedrals/churches, lay people also need to be trained and supported to embrace entrepreneurship. This would reduce any form of incitement to give up the faith for another. If the Church doesn’t make hay while the sun is shining, we may end up with Melitians Where Donatists who would offer the Church to the highest bidder.

[Photo Credit: Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria]