Priests were forced to leave their parishes because of the violence of Boko Haram. Missions and churches have been destroyed. Many Christians have escaped and found refuge in displaced camps. But now some priests have returned with their Christians and have started to rebuild their communities.
The diocese of Maiduguri includes the entire states of Borno, Yobe and part of Adamawa, in north-eastern Nigeria. In the last six years more than 350 churches and missions in the diocese have been the targets of terror attacks with a good number of them destroyed more than once. About 22 of the Maiduguri Diocese’s 40 parish centres and chaplaincies have been deserted by Catholics. Many have been occupied by Boko Haram militants, who control about three-quarters of the territory of the diocese. At least 32 of the 40 church-run primary schools have been abandoned, and four of the diocese’s five convents are still closed. About 5,000 Catholics have been killed in the diocese alone. Among the diocese’s displaced are 25 of 46 priests, 200 catechists and 20 religious sisters.
“Twenty-five of us were forced to leave, but some already returned and I hope to do the same”, said Father James John to Southworld, one of the priests of the Maiduguri diocese forced to flee from his diocese over the past months by the advance of the Boko Haram Islamist fighters.
Fr. James is from Michika, a town in Adamawa State not far from the border with Cameroon. The Islamists had occupied the town at the start of September, but were then forced to retreat on 29 January by a Nigerian army offensive.
“The Islamists burned homes and killed civilians, men, women and children, but now some residents have returned”, explained Fr. James, who receives information from friends and relatives on the situation. In September he was in Damaturu, in Yobe State, another area at risk, not engulfed in the so-called ‘caliphate’ but targeted numerous times however by the Boko Haram, to the point of being deemed too dangerous. “I was forced to abandon the parish on orders of my Bishop, Monsignor Oliver Dashe Doeme, convinced that remaining would be highly imprudent”. Southworld had spoken to Fr. James last November, after an attack against a high-school that left over fifty students dead in Damaturu.
Fr. James had witnessed injustice and suffering even before leaving Damaturu. The first stopover of his forced trip was Yola, capital of Adamawa transformed by Boko Haram into a large displaced camp. Fr. James was alongside thousands of displaced from the ‘caliphate’. At times he slept out on the street and suffered hunger, which was a problem overcome gradually thanks also to donations collected by the local Bishop, Monsignor Stephen Dami Mamza.
The time came for Fr. James to move again. His bishop invited him to Minna, to the Saint Peter’s parish. This is the city, which counts some 400,000 residents in the heart of Niger State, in which Southworld contacted him again by phone. The area is far from the epicenter of the conflict with Boko Haram, but encouraging reports arrive from the front.
In the recent weeks, the Islamists were flushed out of two occupied areas and the army stepped up raids in the Sambisa Forest, the Islamists’ stronghold east of Maiduguri. “I asked Monsignor Dashe Doeme if I could return to serve in my diocese, because after so much violence there is dire need to rebuild, especially spiritually”, explained Fr. James.
More than half of the 25 priests of Maiduguri have been able to return and are now running both seminaries and colleges. They are working among the people, hoping for a better future.
Visiting the displaced people who have returned to the villages which have just been liberated from the presence of Boko Haram, by troops from Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad, Mgr. Oliver Dashe Doeme, Bishop of Maiduguri talking with people said: “Islamists can destroy our buildings, but not our faith. Our faith is strong and alive … in the persecution we are purified”.
Fr. Gideon Obasogie, Director of Communications of the Diocese of Maiduguri, has recently visited several communities in Adamawa and Borno States: “The displaced persons and refugees who have returned from Cameroon face enormous difficulties. Several families are still separated and many people are reported missing. Houses were completely looted, churches and other church buildings were completely destroyed. But it is important to give hope to our people. We need to start again, with faith and courage”. (J.L.)