The Bishop returned from Nigeria last weekend, after the bombings in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, in which up to 200 people were killed. The attacks, for which Boko Haram claims responsibility, targeted police stations and government buildings. The victims were mostly Muslims. Further attacks two days later destroyed two churches, and another partially destroyed an Anglican secondary school.
The President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, said that Boko Haram would “face the full wrath of the law”. His government has been unable to stop attacks by the group, however, and, last week, it admitted that the chief suspect in the Islamists’ Christmas Day attacks on a church (News, 6 January) had escaped from police custody. Bishop Welby, who has visited Nigeria more than 60 times, said that this latest trip tested even his optimism.
“This is the most difficult situation in Nigeria since the civil war, which ended in 1970. It is hugely complicated, with conflicts at difficult levels in different parts of the country. “The attacks on Friday struck as I was just leaving the country. The level of sophistication in these attacks hasn’t been seen in Nigeria before, and this indicates significant training and outside help, and that is a very big step in the wrong direction.
“There are ongoing disputes in the middle belt and Jos, where one or two people a day are dying, and there is a real threat things could blow up there.” The situation did not divide simply down religious or geographical lines, he said, although there was no doubt that Boko Haram — whose name translates as “Western education is a sin” — wanted to create an Islamist state and force Christians out.
“Boko Haram is, very emphatically, targeting Christians and churches,” Bishop Welby said. “Parts of the country are being ethnically and religiously cleansed. There is very serious persecution of Christians. But Nigeria has the capacity to dance over the cliff edge and still come back, without falling. It’s a wonderful country with extraordinary, capable people.” Bishops in Nigeria had warned that Christians wanted to fight back, and some suggested that civil war might result.
Bishop Welby said that he did not believe that civil war was on the horizon, but he was “not surprised” that bishops were critical of the government’s response to the persecution. The Bishop took a letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Primate of Nigeria, the Most Revd Nicholas Okoh, which assured him of his friendship and support.
In an article on the Church of Nigeria website, Archbishop Okoh is quoted as thanking Bishop Welby for “travelling from a far distance” to show solidarity with the Anglican community. “The intense attack of Boko Haram is really tempting the Christians whether to continue to maintain peace, always turning the other cheek, or fight back to find their safety. . .
The attempt to drag Nigerians into militancy is something Nigerians must resist,” the Archbishop is quoted as saying. Bishop Welby said that the West faced “very difficult choices” about how to support Nigeria, and that any direct foreign intervention would be “disastrous”.
Yesterday, in a letter to President Jonathan, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, said that he was “deeply saddened” by the “continuing violence and social upheaval in Nigeria”.
He continued: “We must remain prayerful and vigilant regarding the developments in Nigeria as they are potentially destabilizing not only for Nigeria itself but for countries in Africa and other regions. . .
“The actions of Nigeria’s Christian and Muslim leaders working together to end the violence is a contribution that will ultimately allow both communities to live in peace. Nigeria cannot become another battlefield where religion is used to promote divisions and hatred, allowing for destructive intentions. Christians and Muslims around the world offer their support to our sisters and brothers in Nigeria to enable them to live together in peace.”