The Church in Nigeria: Lessons from North Africa

The Church in Nigeria is in danger of falling to the same sad fate as North Africa, losing the faith due to it not being truly incarnated in the culture.

Last year, a classmate of mine in the minor seminary and a missionary priest shared some pictures of Gothic cathedrals in Tunisia on our Alumni WhatsApp platform. He explained that those churches have been converted to mundane uses. Another priest, who was as shocked as I was, asked: “What happened?” All those who commented on the matter wondered “why” and “how” that would happen to an erstwhile highly populated Catholic country. Immediately, I recalled how, some years back, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reverted Hagia Sophia, the world’s largest “cathedral” into a mosque. 

I became curious about the Church in North Africa. Surprisingly, I found that there were 60 dioceses in Tunisia before the country’s independence in 1956. Regrettably, Tunisia is now about 98 percent Islam. The country has only one diocese, the Archdiocese of Tunis. The other 59 dioceses merely exist on paper. They are accorded cardinals and auxiliary bishops who do not enjoy the power of jurisdiction. The reader might ask, “What has happened to the cathedrals, basilicas, and churches?” Well, those holy places have been converted into museums, theaters, libraries, clinics, and so forth.  

The same is true throughout North Africa. In Tunisia, the Arabs expelled the native Berbers into the desert. It is estimated that only about 5,000 Berbers are left in Tunisia. As it stands, in Mali, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Chad, and Niger Republic there is a significant decline in embracing and living the Christian faith. From being a bastion of Catholicism in the early Church, North Africa was overwhelmed by Islam and now is almost completely Muslim. How did this happen, and what can the Church in Nigeria learn from it? 

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First, the faith was not incarnated. Because Latin was difficult, insistence on teaching catechesis or preaching in Latin with poor translation gave Islam an advantage. The Berbers saw 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. The Romans and Byzantines did not have the presence of mind to assimilate the indigenous Berbers. This was what prepared the coffin that would eventually bury the Church in the Islamic Maghreb.      

Second, while Islam was building capacity and empowering their adherents economically, Christianity kept emphasizing hierarchy, tradition, and erecting cathedrals. Again, there was little emphasis on teaching sound catechesis and empowering the laity. Like soldier ants for sugar-water, when Islam arrived it was pretty easy for Christians who were not grounded in the faith to switch lanes. The Church became the worse for it.      

Third, the Church suffered as a result of schisms. For instance, Donatism, named after the Berber Christian Bishop Donatus Magnus, held that the worthiness of the minster determines the effectiveness of the sacrament. Donatism flourished in the Christian community of the Roman Africa Province (Tunisia/Northeastern Algeria and Western Libya) from the 4th-5th centuries. Equally, the Melitians, also known as Church of the Martyrs, was an early Christian sect that was founded in Egypt around 306 by Bishop Melitius of Lycopolis, who rebelled against the Episcopal authority of Peter, Bishop of Alexandria. Consequently, he and his followers broke away from the Catholic Church. The lack 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. Sadly, they left the Berbers to their fate. The invading Arabs ran over the territory. With jihad as a principle of war, Christianity in North Africa met its waterloo after the conquest of the region by the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate between 647-709.  

Over 1,300 years later, the situation of Christians in Northern Nigeria is similar to what their fellow Christians suffered in the Islamic Maghreb. There are three phases of the arrival of the faith in Northern Nigeria: first, in 1857, Samuel Ajayi Crowther founded missions in Rabba and Masaba; second, between 1888-1900, the Sudan Party and the movement of the military headquarters arrived in Lokoja; and third, from 1900-1918, new converts were recruited from among the Hausa-Fulani in cities like Zaria, Funtua, Kano, and Gusau. The giant strides of Fr. Oswald Waller and his companions, who arrived in Shendam on February 12, 1907, gave birth to three Catholic Provinces in Northern/North Central Nigeria with 22 dioceses.

Despite these achievements, like the Church in North Africa, the faith has not been fully incarnated. Except for the Church in Makurdi, Gboko, and Otukpo, the faith has not been indigenized in other dioceses in Northern Nigeria. For example, liturgical books (sacramentary, catechism, and prayer leaflets) are still in either English or Hausa, the popular lingua franca. Despite the ordination of thousands of local priests, many dioceses are merely content with quasi-liturgical inculturation without adequate training in theological inculturation. 

In Northern Nigeria, the threat of Islamic jihad is real. Increasingly, Muslims are been empowered by their ilk in government. Through Islamic banking and other ancillary organizations, they are building capacity and empowering their adherents economically by providing them with soft loans. With the promise of a better life, Christian youths are easily lured to Islam. 

Also, Christians are discriminated in employment and admission. In most cases, they have to 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 forcefully Islamized without qualms. The Boko Haram sect is sacking Christian villages in the states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Killer-herdsmen and armed bandits are also on the prowl. 

Only recently, Genocide Watch reported that “Nigeria is a killing field of defenseless Christians.” According to that 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 have been destroyed. Other Christians are fleeing to safer places where they can sleep with two eyes closed. 

The Church in Northern Nigeria can survive if it makes a deliberate attempt at incarnating the faith through theological inculturation. This must include teaching catechesis in a sound and attractive manner. This would prepare the faithful for any kind of persecution. Without prejudice to building cathedrals/churches, the laity must also be trained and supported to embrace entrepreneurship. This would curb every kind of enticement to drop the faith for another. If the Church does not make hay while the sun shines, we may be left with Melitians or Donatists who would offer the Church to the highest bidder.   

[Photo Credit: Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria]

  • Fr. Justine John Dyikuk

    Fr. Dyikuk is a Lecturer of Mass Communication at the University of Jos, Editor of Caritas Newspaper, and Convener for Media Team Network Initiative (MTNI), Nigeria.

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