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51st anniversary of the expulsion of Catholic missionaries from Nigeria

By Rev. Fr. Angelo Chidi Unegbu

207

1. Precisely this day, 51 years ago, 18th February 1970, few days after the Nigeria- Biafran war that ended with the slogan of “No Victor No Conquest”, the Nigerian government deported all of the Catholic missionaries that were working in Biafraland at that time. Their crime was that they broke the Nigerian government’s (Road-Land-Sea) blockade law on Biafra by bringing in food and medications through unauthorized means to save the lives of the starving Biafrans. However, they were charged in court not for these ‘crimes’ but rather for illegal entry into Nigeria. They were declared guilty, jailed and deported.

2. If fire could consume the tortoise with an iron coat what of the fowl with a feathered gown? “If the Nigerian government could manhandle missionaries who were considered to be ‘untouchables’, what then could be the fate of perceived rebels?”, the indigenous Church men and women must have thought. Thus, most indigenous Church leaders became more cautious and politically correct. In fact, the maintenance of a good relationship with the government became the 11th commandment of ecclesiastical leadership in Nigeria. However, being politically correct in a country known for clamping down on dissenting voices would simply mean being economical with the truth and being afraid to bear the consequences of preaching the Gospel of Jesus.

3. During the war, in order not to jeopardize the diplomatic ties with Nigeria, the Irish ambassador to Nigeria Paul Keating and his cohorts who were on the side of the Nigerian government, referred to the missionaries as “busybodies” “from abroad who involved themselves in the internal affairs of Nigeria, and by their propaganda and aid and comfort to the Biafrans, unduly prolonged the war and caused great suffering to the Nigerian people”. (See Ambassador forthright in criticism of Irish missionaries in Nigeria, irishtimes.com). “Busybody”, that is what the world calls anyone who acts from the point of view of conscience, justice and love for humanity. The missionaries were expected to pretend to have empathy and never to demonstrate that they truly have it (standard diplomatic behaviour!). They were expected to let sleeping dogs lie. It is in this sense that one can really understand why the entire world looked the other way during that genocide.

4. In Nigeria, many non-Biafran Christians cared less about the atrocities going on in Biafran because they wanted to be politically correct and not busybodies. To date, many Christians turn a blind eye to the atrocities going on in Nigeria because they do not want to be labelled busybodies. They want to mind their business. Yet the same people claim to be the followers of Jesus Christ who died for the truth and for the liberation of mankind. Funny enough, the same prophets who are not prepared to lose a hair for the sake of the truth, claim from to time to time to have received messages from God. “God told me this. God told me that.” Does that not appear contradictory to you?

5. In Europe especially in Germany, one sees the names of fallen soldiers boldly inscribed on the walls in every church building that existed at the time of the war. In Nigeria to date the Church is yet to say a requiem or conduct a funeral service for those who lost their lives during that war. It is very disheartening that the Church has not set aside a day to remember Nigerians, children, Christians, priests and their church members that died during the war but the Nigerian government remembers her fallen soldiers every 15th January!

6. It is sad and at the same time unbelievable that the Catholic Church in Nigeria or in Igboland has to date no museum that tells the story of the Church’s humanitarian roles during that war. How many flights landed in Biafra? How did the flights come in without being noticed? Who were the pilots? What were their motivations? How many tons of food and medication were delivered? Where did the food and medications come from? How many missionaries were killed? How many people died during the war? How were the Uli and Uga airports constructed and by who? What records do we have of the church that was demolished in order to build the airport? May be such a documentation would wake up the sleeping dog. Could it be that the Church also in this case wanted to allow the sleeping dog to lie? In a nation like ours many believe that it is safer to be politically correct rather than being a busybody. The Church must not forget, however, that had the apostles remained politically correct rather than “busybodies”, the documentation of the death and resurrection of Jesus may not have been possible! The Church must insist on her prophetic and didactic roles and damn the consequences if she must remain relevant in the society. A spade must be called nothing but a spade!

7. Few weeks ago in Orlu, lives were snuffed out of bona fide citizens for no reasons. To date no justice has been sought or served. Some months ago, it was Obigbo where young boys through the executive order allegedly issued by the governor of River state were sought and killed by the Nigerian army and police whose primary duty is to protect them. Few years ago, it was Onitsha, Aba, Enugu, Afara-Ukwu, Port Harcourt and so on where IPOB members were butchered by the security forces. (These are confirmed reports from Amnesty International). Day in day out, citizens are kidnapped, raped and murdered without consequences. Funny enough all these places have dioceses of various denominations, churches, presbyteries, parishes, with bishops, priests, pastors, evangelists and so on in charge of them. These religious leaders too decided to allow the sleeping dog lie lest they be labelled as “busybodies”. Not even chickens remain quiet when their chicks are being whisked away. A Church without a voice is as useless as a lantern without oil. When a Church loses its voice in such situations where lives are wasted, then it means that it lacks empathy and the spirit of God. We must borrow a leaf from our Catholic missionaries. If they were still here, the story would have been different!

8. To be fair, some clergymen and women are speaking up now but the echoes of their tiny and lonely voices are easily blown away by the winds of intimidation fanned by democratic dictatorship and state-sponsored terrorism. These clergymen need not be mentioned here but we must tell them that we all are solidly behind them with our prayers. They should never allow the spirit of fear to win over that which God has endowed them with. The enemy, the devil is roaring like a hungry lion, the scripture reminds us. We must not submit to him because the aim of everyone who creates fear is always to harm and to pillage. Church leaders should also realize that the shepherd does not exist for himself or herself but for the flock entrusted to him/her by God. Any bishop, priest or pastor who keeps quiet because of the fear of being persecuted or loosing favour with the powers that be, when one of his/her members suffers injustice at the hand of anyone, does not merit the office he or she is occupying.

9. If only a simple Christmas message from one bishop was able to cost the government in power too many nights without sleep, then imagine what would have happened if that letter was signed by the entire Bishops Conference or that all the bishops wrote in that manner at the same time. To fight injustice, we must learn to work together at the same time otherwise it will be easy for the agents of darkness to overrun us and instigate fear among us by attacking and picking us individually. If the Holy Ghost Fathers had not spoken with one voice and acted in unison, they would not have succeeded in saving the lives of many Biafran children. When anyone of us is speaking out against injustice, rather than being spectators we all (including all Christians and men and women of good conscience) should join in the chorus. That is the only way to do it. Any gospel tainted with fear does not come from God. Anyone who is afraid of speaking the truth because of the fear of persecution has no business on any Christian pulpit. Nigeria boasts of having the highest number of churches of various denominations, men and women of God and Christians, yet we must always wait for Amnesty International to tell the world what is happening in our own backyard. Is that not shameful?

10. Jesus designated the Church as the Light of the world because light is the only antidote against darkness. In the absence of light, darkness appears powerful and dangerous. The truth is that darkness has no power except the one given to it by light for refusing to shine. Imagine what would happen if the Catholic Church that cuts across the entire length and breadth of the country will decide to switch on the light of justice and courage. Of course, she will risk being persecuted but she will eventually win at the end because light will always defeat darkness. The Church may incur wounds but the scars will ever be salutary. Imagine what will happen if our Protestant and Pentecostal brethren, standing alongside with us, will also switch on the light of justice and truth. Imagine that all journalists of good conscience, all baptized lawyers; all good politicians; all men and women of good will would at the same time allow the light of God in them to shine, I tell you, darkness will disappear immediately from our country and the men and women of darkness will find no hiding place to operate. Justice, progress and peace would reign and happiness will cover our land. THE CHILDREN OF GOD HAVE NO BUSINESS BEING AFRAID. LET US BORROW A LEAF FROM OUR GALLANT MISSIONARIES WHO WERE EXPELLED FROM NIGERIA 51 YEARS AGO.


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