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… With over 90,000 Catholics displaced from Gwoza, Pulka and Madagala axis
…About 5,000 Catholics killed, lost about 22 rectories where the priests live
… Lost dioceses especially in the northern part of Adamawa where the campaign is every intense and northern Borno
… Lost about 17 schools, 4 clinics, and three convents

Fr John Bakeni

Photo: Fr John Bakeni, the secretary of the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri and the Humanitarian Director of Internally Displaced Catholics in Maiduguri.

The Catholic Church in Northeast Nigeria has been facing wanton persecution and suffering in the face of the Boko Haram insurgency. Thousands of Catholics have been killed; many priests and religious have been displaced, including hundreds of local parishes, convent, rectories, dioceses and seminary schools destroyed. Recently, Nigerian Catholic Reporter’s ace writer, Festus Iyorah met with Fr John Bakeni, the secretary of the Maiduguri Catholic Diocese and the Humanitarian Director of Internally Displaced Catholics in Maiduguri. FrBakeni discussed the depth of Catholics faith despite persecution and how the universalchurch, Catholic agencies, and diocesess across Nigeria have been assisting the Diocese of Maiduguri.

How has the diocese of Maiduguri been affected by the conflict?

The Catholic diocese of Maiduguri has had its own share of the destruction of the whole campaign of the Boko Haram. Let me take you back a bit—theChristians are a minority in Borno State, more so northern Nigeria. There are challenges Christians have been living with before the coming of this insurgency. These are some challenges Christians have learnt to live with. The campaign of the insurgents accelerated and gave a pronounced level of destruction and suffering the diocese have been facing. The Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri comprises of the whole of Borno State, Yobe and some part of Adamawa. It is the largest in terms of land mass. But in terms of population we have about 300,000 Catholics. Now, we cannot keep the record. At some point we have over 90,000 Catholics who were displaced from Gwoza, Pulka and Madagala axis including some parts of catholic diocese. We have been affected in terms of physical destruction. We have lost quite a number of churches and people. We lost about 5,000 Catholics, about 22 rectories where the priests live. We lost over 200 dioceses especially in the northern part of Adamawa where the campaign is every intense and northern Borno. We lost about 17 schools, 4 clinics, three convents. These are some of the records we have.

Is this why you call the victims lost to the attack Maiduguri Martyrs?

Yes, it’s deliberate because the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri is a suffering church. It’s a persecuted church. Given what we have been going through a lot of Christians have been killed, they are about 5,000 Catholics killed; some of them died in the bush in the process of running and nobody can account for them. These are some of the experiences we have and people try to place a historical timeline that it started in 2009 but before 2009 we’ve been having experiences of churches being burnt. For instance, in February 2006 one of us, Rev FrMicheal was murdered in cold blood by some Muslims hoodlums. In fact they were coordinated attacks that same day. Many churches were burnt. We had another incident where the Bishop’s house was even burnt too.   Before this whole crisis came to limelight all these were going on but people have not been able to classify them.

How is the diocese of Maiduguri reacting to the conflict?

Some internally displaced persons lives in official IDP camps of about 1.8 million and but 70 per cent of these IDPs live in host communities; they are not in official government camps. And that was the situation of our Catholics too. So we established a new camp for Catholics displaced by the crisis. They’re just in our new secretariat which is located in a town in Maiduguri with about 500 families living in the camp. At some point here in the cathedral at the beginning of the crisis we were distributing food to IDPs irrespective of their religious affiliations. So far we have about 70,000 Catholics displaced in our care. Incidentally most of the Christians find it difficult to live in the Muslim camps because of discrimination so they stay in our camp instead.

What is the Catholic Church doing to see to their welfare?

Well, I can tell you because I have been involved personally. The Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri has spent a lot on displaced persons. As I speak to you now, within the last three years we have spent over aN150million on displaced persons. Incidentally when distributing relief materials we do not discriminate. We pay for medical bills. Every month we also pay for medical bills. We supplied them food and other relief items. We also have a very large group of displaced persons in Yola and thanks to the Catholic Bishop of Yolawho really did very well in providing for them. As I speak to you in terms of aid or relief materials we receive very little or nothing from the government or even from the internationalagencies involved. So all this spending is from the diocese coffers. And thanks to some church agencies that assisted us and then some because at some stage the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri was declared an emergency diocese by the Catholic conference Bishops of Nigeria. So, that necessarily meant that dioceses were obliged to contribute towards this diocese. Many of them did and most of those resources went into catering for the displaced persons. So we are trying to take care of the displaced persons not just Catholics. It may surprise you that the Catholic Church was the first agency to take relief materials to Muslim camps when these Muslims were displaced, so we have tried to do what we can do within the limits of our resource.

What can you say about the level of faith Catholics here have exhibited despite the fact that they’ve been hit by the crisis and persecution?

What we have seen in our Catholics which I think it’s the only gift we have to the universal church is the resilience and the depth of their faith in the midst of this crisis. I have testimonies of many who were fortunate to have escaped from the camps under the threat of conversion but refused to convert. In fact this whole experience has purified the faith of our people. We have about 11 Catholic parishes within Maiduguri. If you go there they are always filled to the brim with parishioners in every mass. Even when there is a bomb explosion you will find Catholics going to the church; they are never deterred from even coming for church activities. So that is the kind of resilience and faith that people have really put up—theywere never discouraged. In fact all I can say is that their faith has been tested and proven. What we are going through here is for the purification of the mother church. It is in such moment that the church is defined.

Photo: Internally displaced catholics praying rosary at proposed catholic secretariat turned IDP camp for displaced catholics in Maiduguri

What is the universal church, Nigerian dioceses and Catholic agencies doing to support the church in Maiduguri?

With every sense of gratitude, agencies like Missio​, German based Catholic charity, Aidto the Church in Need,Misserio, Caritas and Catholic relief service have done a lot but our​ backbone have been Aid the church in need and Missio. Thanks to the Nigerian bishops, we have also received support from the dioceses across Nigeria, especially Lagos Archdiocese and Enugu diocese.


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