Bishop Matthew H. Kukah of the Diocese of Sokoto, Nigeria, received a warm welcome amid the Nigerian community at St. Fortunata Church, East New York, last Sunday afternoon.
Joined by several Nigerian priests serving in the Brooklyn Diocese, the bishop celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving “for our great country of Nigeria and to pray for the United States which has become home to many of you.”
Looking into the joyful faces of the congregation, he saw religious sisters from the Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy and dozens of his countrymen wearing traditional garb, singing in local dialects and ready to hear what he had to say about their homeland.
“The challenges in Sokoto are enormous,” the bishop told the faithful, “but we are very grateful to God because we are really happy. The difficulties are making it possible and easier for us to witness to Christ.”
“If you are very comfortable,” he added, “you take too much for granted.”
Bishop Kukah was in New York as part of a 10-day U.S. tour to raise awareness about conditions in Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria, where his diocese is located. Christians there make up “about two or three percent of the population,” he noted. They live under sharia, or Islamic law, and suffer persecution by radicals.
When the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 Nigerian schoolgirls in 2014, the country captured the world’s eye as outrage spread globally through the social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls.
A former member of Nigeria’s investigation commission on human rights violations, Bishop Kukah mobilized the Christian minority in the north and rallied in the streets.
“We’ve had a nonstop protest for the last two years calling for their release,” he said.
“For a long time, we didn’t know whether the girls were dead or whether they were still alive, but happily, about two weeks ago we saw the video indicating … the girls are still alive,” he said, referencing a video released by Boko Haram.
“I think international pressure has been very useful and very important,” he said.
The kidnapping offers a glimpse into the Islamic cultural practice of 9- and 10-year-old girls being forced into marriage when all they want is a proper education, the bishop said.
“The issue of the Chibok girls, it is a tragedy but it is also a… metaphor for helping to understand the very serious problems that children, but most importantly girls, face in Nigeria …
“Our immediate area of concern and engagement is education,” the bishop said.
He believes that education is key to fostering dialogue, morals, tolerance and ultimately, peace.
St. Fortunata parishioner Gloria Egbo, a Nigerian native, has been following news of the female children taken by Boko Haram, which translates to “Western education is forbidden.”
“The girls have been kidnapped, killed, raped, used as suicide bombers, got impregnated, molested, a whole lot of evil things,” she said. “They (Boko Haram) still use them (kidnapped girls) to bomb churches and the marketplaces.”
Jennifer Nwakuna, 11, from St. Fortunata, feels “sad and scared” for the girls. “God forbid, what if that could happen to me … or to people I know,” she said.
The bishop’s visit was sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need, a papal charity that works to support the suffering Church in the world.
“The Diocese of Sokoto, which is the historical seat of the caliphate of Nigeria … is a place of great interest to radical Islam,” explained Edward Clancy, Aid to the Church in Need’s director of outreach and evangelization in the U.S.
Love and Education
Clancy noted that the bishop has been “able to address this problem head on … and express love and education as the answer to what they (radicals) offer, which is violence and division.”
“I am convinced that what we are going through now in Nigeria will pass,” the bishop said during his visit. “We must be apostles of hope.”
He awaits with great optimism a day when the people of Nigeria identify themselves not by religious convictions, but rather as fellow citizens, coexisting in peace. He told the faithful in Brooklyn that the country depends on their prayers and encouragement. The people need to know their brothers and sisters in the U.S. support them.
“Working together in solidarity is at the heart of our faith,” the bishop said.
Considering the bishop’s words, Oluchi Nwanko, a Nigerian from St. Clement Pope parish, S. Ozone Park, said she hopes to one day “see peace happening in Nigeria,” she said.
“We are all one under God whether you worship Muhammad, or you go to Christ. It is all the same God.”