“I had to bury the dead fearing the terrorists return” – interview and a video message from Bishop of the most suffered region of Nigeria
Lutheran Bishop Amos Elisha Gaya visited Hungary as part of a Leadership Exchange programme organised by the Lutheran World Federation, with the goal of ”exchanging knowledge and sharing the way faith is expressed.” His visit followed the recent visit of Hungarian Lutheran Bishop Tamás Fabinyi to Nigeria. In our interview, we asked him about his experience, about Boko Haram and the sufferings that Christians have to endure in Nigeria.
How was your visit to Hungary?
Well, first of all I want to thank God for giving us this opportunity to be here in Hungary. Also I want to thank the government of Hungary for giving us visas and allowing us to come here without causing us any embarrassment during the official process of entering Hungary at the airport. I also want to thank the Lutheran Church of Christ of Hungary for choosing to enter into a partnership with our church in Nigeria.
Being in Hungary is exciting for us because we have learnt a lot. We have heard so many stories, even stories of the past Communist era that we read about in the seminary a long time ago. It was good to meet so many Hungarians; they are loving and passionate people who welcomed us warmly.
I also had the opportunity to meet and talk with the secretary of state which is usually not easy to arrange when one visits a country. I also had the opportunity to visit the Parliament, where we even met the prime minister and had the opportunity to discuss some issues with him. That was wonderful -I did not expect it to happen.
So I am thrilled. I accomplished many of the things that I wanted to do and visited many places. We met with mentally disabled people at a care centre and participated in several conferences. We also met with people from Romania and Germany and we visited a lot of churches where I had the opportunity to preach on various occasions. It was great to know how pastoral ministry is exercised here and I learnt many things that are done differently than in Nigeria.
Please tell me about your church, Arewa diocese that you oversea, and about the Adamawa state where it is located, which is an area, I believe, that is most affected by Boko Haram.
The Diocese comprises of 92 local congregations. I have 46 serving pastors apart from those who are retired. As a leader, I have a vast amount of responsibilities because we have to attend those that have gone through the crisis, those that still have to be cared for. We have to rebuild houses and churches. In my own diocese, it is fair to say that the crisis has ended. People who had to flee are returning. They are getting used to their communities now, there is not so much fear as there was before. Gradually, the church is getting back to a peaceful life.
It is interesting that you say that, because just five days before you left for Hungary, in the villages of the Numan municipality, there was a massacre again, this time by the Fulanis. Is it your diocese or perhaps you knew the pastor, Gerison Ezekiel Killa, who also died?
It was not in my diocese, it is very far away but in the same state. I live in the northern part of the state and the Numan area is in the middle. I heard about the incident from the news, but actually, I did not know this pastor.
Last June, Catholic bishops issued a statement to the United Nations. Evangelical Christian communities also made their voice heard on quite a few occasions this summer. Has there been any answer yet or has the international community done something about this?
Well, I can’t say that nothing has happened but I can’t say that something has happened either. Nigeria is a huge country with a very complex society. For sure the killings are still going on. Talking about our own government, people are not happy. There is the army, you can see security everywhere. Even the security men are killed in the attacks by the terrorists. Like in the Numan area, people are complaining and crying but the killing is still going on. The government is trying to do something but it is very slow in taking action. They should really do their best because they are very slow.
People are dying, they are losing their homes. And you know, this is the rainy season, so you will see people sleeping outside in the rain, under the trees, facing the cold, the mosquitos, diseases… And yet the government is not acting as it should. If the government would stand on their feet I am sure this thing would come to an end within a few days.
I know the Nigerian soldiers, I know their strengths. If only our government would support them, I am telling you this whole thing would not have happened and this crisis would come to an end in a very short time. For some reason they do not act accordingly; I don’t know why. They are telling the media that they are trying but nothing happens. And that is why church leaders are complaining; that is why people complain.
Not long ago the Catholic bishop who is also the chairman of the Christian association in my state led a peaceful demonstration asking our governor that put an end to this. Yet after the demonstration many villages were still burned down and many people in the cities were murdered. So you just don’t understand what is happening. But OK, there are other areas where we can say they are trying.
There are those girls who are held hostages in the Boko Haram. One of them was Leah Sharibu, who is from my diocese and is still under their custody. I know her very well, I know her family. Last week Boko Haram released her voice message: she was crying, asking the federal government to please help her, to rescue her. I do not know whether the federal government has done something.
The Christian Association of Nigeria, of which the Lutheran Church of Christ of Nigeria is a member stated that attacks ”go unchallenged despite huge investments in the security agencies.” The news says that a double standard exists: on the one hand there is a total impunity of the Fulani but on the other hand, whenever a Christian does anything he is prosecuted and brought to justice. They also say the president does nothing because he himself is a Fulani. Is that all true?
Well, people say that. And you see if you are in trouble and you have your father, and you are crying to your father for help, but that father refuses to help you but he is helping another brother, you may end up thinking he treats you differently…
Since you see the Christian communities destroyed and people killed by the Fulanis, and you see the jets, and the army killing the people, and the Fulanis are not killed, then you think that this cannot be pure coincidence. The other question is: where and how do they get their weapons? If the government is serious, then they should check the border. Now terrorists can get their rifles but if the man in the street wants to buy a weapon to defend himself, the government would not allow him to.
Definitely, Christians are those who are suffering. And yes, they can say that it is because the president is also Fulani. They have all the right to speak their mind. Because if he cannot take action against the Fulani but he can against the other part (the Christians) then people are free to say that the president is not doing justice to them because he belongs to the other party (the Fulanis). And that is why the Christians, the local people are crying and complaining because the government is not doing justice to them. They say in the media that they do justice, but I don’t think that is true. The government has to stand up and do justice so that this terror may come to an end in Nigeria.
Also, on many occasions the army does not react. If there is an attack, people would call the army for help. They are told that and they need to wait for an order that permits them to intervene. But no one knows where the order should come from and if it does eventually arrive, the villages have already been burnt down, the people have been killed and the army will have done nothing.
Is Boko Haram still active in your diocese?
In certain parts they are still active, but not in the cities. They are in the rural areas but they are not so strong as they were before.
In an earlier interview, you mentioned that once, after an attack you had to bury the dead out of fear that they would come back and kill you too. How was it when they were more active in your diocese? Did you have to face atrocities or have you had family or friends who were killed?
I had my brothers killed, my first cousin killed, friends, members of my church killed. I cannot say anyone I know in the church who was not affected by the killings. We also had to take care of people who fled from the attacks.
I remember I had once 200 people at my house. I had to feed them for 2 weeks until it was safe enough for them to go back to their families. They were Muslims and Christians in my house because when they [Boko Haram] strike, they attack everyone so Muslims also run away. So I had 200 people- I went to other people’s houses too for their help. We also had Muslim brothers but we helped them too. We gave them food, despite the fact that we were once persecuted by them, but still, we showed them the love of Christ. Not all of them are bad, not all of them are arrogant, there are polite ones, there are ones that are liberal, there are those that are friendly.
Now that peace seems to come back we pray that what we saw we don’t have to see again. May God hear our prayers.
“We need to be courageous, we need to have faith, we need to stand firm, we need to love each other – whether you are black or white… wherever you are coming from. Let’s see ourselves as brothers and sisters, because when persecution is coming, it’s coming to everybody once you are a Christian” – said Bishop Gaya in his video message to the Christians of the world.
You said in that interview I mentioned that there is ”a spiritual revival, partly driven by persecution.” Could you give us some examples?
Well, I would like to give you one. There was an old woman, she had been a Muslim for all her life. So after this attack, she came to me to talk. And she asked whether it is the same God whom we worship, like the God of those people who did the killings. She said that she did not want to be a Muslim anymore.
Because she saw those people, she saw the way they were killing, the way they destroyed other people’s properties. And she said she believed that someone who knows God would not do that. So she denounced her Islamic faith and she came to our church. We baptised her; it was a big ceremony.
And then there are those ‘secret ones’, that are actually becoming Christians. Some are convinced that if what Boko Haram is preaching is really about God, then they would not follow it because no God would support killing innocent people, burning their houses just because they do not have the same faith.
So a lot of people leave Islam and come to Christianity even at the price of being persecuted. That has been a sort of strength to our faith, to the faith of the Church.
Also, that has been a new ministry to the church aimed at finding ways of accompanying and helping those converts. As you know in Africa once a Muslim becomes a Christian he also will be persecuted. If they find him, they kill him. So the church has to find the ways of helping those new converts so that they can stand on their own, to assist them with their livelihood until they become strong, until they can resist the persecution and they can take care of themselves. This happens so often.
And this is a joy for Christians. This is like the blood of the martyrs, those that died for Christ, their blood was shed not in vain. In those new converts, their blood is germinating into everlasting life.
Boko Haram still holds captives, even today. We all know about Leah Sharibu and we pray for her. But there have been a lot more taken by them. In your opinion, what are the perspectives for these people kidnapped by Boko Haram?
We do not know what they will do. Leah was still held hostage after they released many other girls because she would not convert to Islam. Now it seems Boko Haram wants a ransom for her, no one knows if the government would pay that ransom or not. We still hope she will be released.
How could the situation be handled properly and what do you think should be done to stop all this violence in Nigeria and get back to normality?
There was a Nigerian president, General Sani Abacha, who said that if a crisis started in Nigeria that lasted for more than 24 hours, and the Nigerian soldiers would not be able to crush that crisis,
that means the government is behind that crisis. Ask any Nigerian, they would tell you about this, because Sani Abacha has said that in his speech, as a general and as a president, and everyone knows that.
Boko Haram is around since maybe 2011, doing what they are doing, so it is very difficult to convince people like me that the government is not behind this. The government has the power: they have control over the soldiers, the infantry, the navy and the air force. They control the borders, the coasts, they control immigration.
So tell me how is it possible that all those weapons can come in without the knowledge of all these people just mentioned?
If our government would say ”there is no Boko Haram”, I am telling you, within five days the Nigerians would bring this problem to an end.
I trust Nigerian soldiers, they are well trained and they had been in very difficult situations, they fought in Liberia with success. Why do they not protect their own citizens, why do they not protect Nigeria? They took an oath that they would die for Nigeria and for Nigerians! The can fight for other nations, they can win the peace back for Liberia but they would not do that for their own country?
How can you convince me that the government is not aware of this? The government is aware and very much so! I do not know why, [they do nothing] maybe they have their political reasons. Who knows?
I know one thing: if they were to say ”NO” then it would be definitive.
Photo credit: Lutheran.hu, Lutheranworld.org