Igbo Community Celebrates ‘The Safety We Found’ In U.S.
EAST NEW YORK — The Diocese of Brooklyn’s annual celebration of the flight of the Holy Family, a tradition in the Nigerian American community here, took on an added significance this year as participants worried about troubling developments in their home country.
Nigeria is the largest democracy in Africa with a population of 213 million people, 20 million of whom are Catholic. But the country has been beset with incidents of religious persecution against Catholics and Christians, including the kidnappings and murders of priests, and members of the Nigerian community here are growing increasingly concerned about the state of affairs there.
Bishop Robert Brennan celebrated Mass at St. Fortunata Church in East New York on Sunday, Feb. 19, to mark the flight of the Holy Family, which commemorates the story of Joseph and Mary fleeing Bethlehem with the newborn Jesus for the safe confines of Egypt after Joseph was warned in a dream that King Herod wanted to hunt down the baby and kill him.
“One thing that’s very significant about our gathering is to pray for the homeland, for Nigeria, in the face of everything that’s happening,” Bishop Brennan said.
While the celebration of the flight of the Holy Family was colorful and festive — featuring traditional Igbo dress and steady drum beats — it also served as a reminder to Nigerian Americans of just how much they relate to the story of the Holy Family’s flight because they, too, had to leave their birthplace to find safety elsewhere.
Many of the participants noted that Egypt is located on the continent of Africa, as is their homeland of Nigeria.
“Today is a beautiful day. Our hearts are filled with joy today because we know that Baby Jesus and our Mother Mary were brought to safety in Egypt,” said Chinyere Nnorom, who was dressed in vibrant colors — a yellow skirt, a white blouse and a green headscarf called an “ichafu.”
The flight of the Holy Family is of particular significance to the segment of the Igbo Nigerian community here in the diocese. Igbo, an ethnic community within Nigeria, is predominantly Christian and comprises approximately 18% of that country’s population.
“Just as Jesus fled to Egypt, and Egypt became his place of protection, we are celebrating our movement,” said Father Cosmas Nzeabalu, coordinator of the Nigerian Apostolate for the diocese.
The Nigerian community in the diocese is centered around three churches — St. Fortunata in East New York, St. Clement Pope Church in South Ozone Park, and St. Paul the Apostle Church in Corona. Parishioners from all three churches attended the Mass.
The celebration gives Nigerian Americans the chance to “look at where we are coming from and the safety we found,” he added.
Yet, their hearts are heavy. “We are concerned that the people of God in Nigeria cannot move around freely and cannot speak freely,” Father Nzeabalu said. “There are killings, kidnappings, and political fights. Muslim extremists are trying to destroy the churches.”
In 2022 alone, six Catholic priests were kidnaped or attacked. On June 5, gunmen stormed St. Francis Parish in the Diocese of Ondo in southwest Nigeria during a Mass and killed 50 people.
In the most recent attack, Father Isaac Achi, a priest from the Diocese of Minna in northern Nigeria, was killed when attackers set fire to the rectory at his church, Saints Peter and Paul, on Jan. 18. A second priest, Father Collins Omeh, escaped the fire but was shot by gunmen as he fled the burning building.
“I am so worried because I still have family there,” said Nnorom, who helped organize the Feb. 19 Mass. “The people have no money, no food. Everything is backwards. We pray it will get better and we pray that God will visit us and our families that are there.”
Chibuzo Nweke, who also helped to organize the Mass, offered a theory on why it is happening. “Because we are strong in our faith, we are being attacked by the Muslim extremists. Not all Muslims, of course. The extremists say, ‘We don’t want this for your life.’ They don’t want this person to get an education. They go to churches and kidnap the priests. They kill people,” he said.
He would like to go back to Nigeria to see family, but knows that now is not the right time. “Going back is a tall order right now because nothing seems to be normal. Everybody’s praying that things will be normal over there,” he explained.
There is hope that changes could be coming. There is a presidential election set for Feb. 25 and many Nigerian Americans are urging family and friends to support one candidate, Peter Obi, who they believe will stop the persecution of Christians.
Obi, a businessman and political outsider, has captured the imagination of Nigeria’s young people and Nigerians here said they’re hoping he can lead the country to a brighter future.
“People are mobilizing. They are sending money. They are calling members of their families over there to tell them to vote for him,” Father Nzeabalu said.
Bishop Brennan said the celebration of the flight of the Holy Family was significant for another reason.
“It is the idea that people are dispersed throughout the world from Nigeria. The community here in Queens and Brooklyn, and even beyond, comes together each year to celebrate that flight and know that they’re not alone in their migration, that they’re not alone in the journey, that here they form a community together,” he explained.