After a bloody Christmas Day attack on a Catholic church in Madalla that left 35 people dead, Archbishop John Onaiyekan of the Nigerian capital of Abuja is urging the faithful to ignore an ultimatum issued by the militant Muslim group Boko Haram giving Christians three days to vacate the northern part of the country.
“As for the reported ultimatum that was issued by somebody who is claiming to be speaking on behalf of Boko Haram, most Nigerians are not taking them seriously because, in the first place, it doesn’t seem to make sense,” he said. “Where is the north and where is the south? There are Christians all over and there are Muslims all over.”
The ultimatum was issued a week after members of the group hurled explosives at the faithful who were leaving St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Madalla as they were leaving Mass on Christmas Day. Nearly 40 people were killed in the attack.
This is the second consecutive year that Boko Haram staged a Christmas attack on Christians, killing 32 people last year in a series of bombings in Jos on Christmas Eve.
If the purpose of the attacks was to divide Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, it has actually brought the groups even closer, the Archbishop said.
“I believe firmly that, whatever desire to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims may be, the fact is that the attack has rather brought us together since Muslims have been showing us expressions of condolences and sympathy, and they have been condemning what has happened,” Onaiyekan said.
The leaders of Islam in Nigeria have also “disowned” Boko Haram, he said, and the people want the government to do more to protect them from the group’s threats which are making all Nigerians – Christian and Muslim – angry, insecure and unsure.
“That is why we challenge [the] government to do all that is required and necessary to make us regain trust in [its] ability to protect all Nigerians,” the Archbishop said.
Nigerian Catholics are receiving plenty of international support as they defy the threats of Boko Haram. A day after the Christmas bombings, Pope Benedict XVI condemned the attacks as “absurd” and asked the faithful to pray for the victims and their families.
Catholic Relief Services also joined with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to stand in solidarity with the Catholic Church of Nigeria and those affected by the attacks as well as all Nigerians who have been affected by the ongoing unrest.
In a letter to Archbishop Onaiyekan, Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the USCCB, said the bishops stand in union with the Holy Father in rejecting these senseless acts of violence and calling on the Nigerian government to identify and eliminate “the dens of these terrorist groups.”
“We support you in this call for accountability,” Bishop Pates wrotes. “The White House has indicated that our government has contacted Nigerian officials regarding these terrorist acts and has pledged ‘to assist them in bringing those responsible to justice.’ Please be assured that we will contact White House officials to thank them for this commitment and to affirm the importance of honoring this pledge.”
In the meantime, Church leaders are urging the faithful to keep the plight of Nigerian Christians in their prayers.
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