News 22 May 2023

Nigeria: “Religion should unite, not divide”

A Catholic Archbishop who needs guard dogs in the house, and an armed escort when he travels, speaks of the difficulties of carrying out his mission in his diocese.

Archbishop Matthew Ndagoso of Kaduna, in north-central Nigeria, leads one of the most dangerous dioceses in the world. You wouldn’t guess it, though, from his smile and cheerfulness when he speaks to pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). Nigeria itself is far from peaceful, located as it is in the middle of the Sahel region, where there have been many victims of Islamist terrorist groups and armed Fulani pastoralist tribesmen. 

In a context such as this, evangelisation becomes a high-risk enterprise. Eight of the diocese’s priests have been kidnapped over the past three years: four were freed, one is still missing and three were killed by their captors. According to the archbishop, one of those three showed tremendous courage: “While they were pointing an AK47 at him, he told his attackers that they should repent of their evil, so they killed him”. 

Despite the danger, Mgr. Ndagoso carries on with his mission. “I have five dogs, so that I can sleep soundly at night”, he explains. He only travels with an armed escort, to carefully guarded spots, because a bishop would be very tempting prey for bandits. “We often pass by vehicles on the road which have been attacked, and it is a reminder that it could happen to us at any moment”, he tells ACN. 

Insecurity has become part of everyday life for Nigerians, to the extent that priests have to weigh their every move to consider if it is worth taking the risk. This has become a major concern. “Faith doesn’t fall from the sky. It needs ministers, but we know that we run risks whenever we send somebody somewhere. We are returning to the first days of the Church”, Archbishop Ndagoso says. 

Religion is a crucial issue in Nigeria, which is divided roughly equally between Christians and Muslims. Those who want to spread conflict in the country – especially Islamist groups such as Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province – constantly try to pit the religious groups against each other, the archbishop bemoans, adding that “Religion should unite us, not divide”.

Archbishop Ndagoso’s life demonstrates how different religious groups can get along in Nigerian society. Born to a leader of a traditional religion, he was sent by a cousin to study at a Catholic school, and asked to be baptised when he was ten. “Here in sub-Saharan Africa religion is in our blood. We have a religious culture! That was passed on to me by my father, and I am grateful to him. My father never reproached me for my election, he was happy that I converted… Although he would have preferred that I got married!”, he adds, with a laugh.

- By Amélie Berthelin 

Featured Image: Archbishop Matthew Ndagoso of Kaduna. Copyright: Aid to the Church in Need.

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