Opening Talk by Most Rev. Ignatius A. Kaigama, Archbishop of Jos and President, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria Abuja, @ the Colloquium on “The Catholic Church and Pentecostalism: Challenges in the Nigerian Context” on THE ROLE OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN THE MULTI RELIGIOUS CONTEXT OF NIGERIA at DRACC on 14th November, 2016


The 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria stipulates that “Nigeria is a multi-religious country.” Although our statistics are rarely accurate, if not controversial because of the obvious war of numbers, it is safe to say that the dominant religious groups are Christianity and Islam. This is not to deny the small percentage of African Traditional Religion (ATR).  Such religious diversity if properly harnessed, could foster unity and greatly contribute to nation building in a country where Muslims are presumed to be predominant in the North and Christians in the South.

The polarization of Nigerians either along religious or denominational lines and the overemphasis of the differences has had far reaching negative consequences that permeates and manifests in almost all facets of life. This portends a threat and danger to our national cohesion and remains a factor responsible for our recurring crises.  It is disheartening that aside the Nigerian civil war no other skirmish has claimed more lives in Nigeria than religiously motivated crises e.g. the Maitatsine riots of the 1980s, the Sharia crisis beginning in 1999, the riots associated with the Miss World beauty competition in 2002 and now the Boko Haram insurgency which began in 2009.

Even among Christians, instead of appreciating each others’ doctrinal differences and complementing one another’s evangelical initiatives, some religious leaders disparage the age-long sacred traditions and practices of other denominations. Some leaders appear bent on rebranding, restructuring and repackaging Christianity in a manner that undermines the centrality of the Cross with the inevitable consequence of misconstruing Christianity as a means of emancipation from poverty to material fortunes.  One George O. Falarin captures this when he refers to it as “the gospel that promises only financial breakthrough or the preaching that does not address the concern of salvation from sin, but only emphasizes that God will make everyone materially rich.”[1] According to Titus 1:11 they teach what they should not, and all for the shameful purpose of making money.[2] The overzealous struggle for followers is heightened and worsened by the efforts of founders of churches to take members from other churches instead of looking for those who do not know about the Gospel. They capitalize on the misfortunes of the people e.g.  poverty, unemployment, sickness, etc in the quest to woo members.

It is noteworthy that the fall-out of the recurrent security challenges occasioned by Boko Haram insurgency, Fulani herdsmen attacks, sectarian agitations and ethnic crises in the country has led some so-called believers across religions to seek to complement God’s protection over them with fetish reinforcements. Some Christians resort to their native beliefs and customs and yet they are hesitant to give up Christianity. This is what Ludovic Lado describes as “lived syncretism’’ which “has more to do with people trying out other gods when they feel that Christianity has let them down. It tends to occur in times of crisis.”[3] This always constitutes a crisis of faith.

In this presentation, I will show that the challenges posed by multi-religiosity are not without reciprocal enrichment, as ecumenical initiatives and inter-religious dialogue help us to better appreciate and accommodate our doctrinal, ideological and religious differences. Dialogue is yielding fruits[4] as many interfaith groups are springing up for the primary purpose of soliciting and seeking for harmonious and peaceful co-existence among adherents of different religions.[5] The physical presence of Islamic leaders at Christian religious ceremonies and vice versa demonstrates the consolidation of Muslim- Christian relationships in Nigeria.

With the gradual understanding of our respective views, there is a reasonable decline in religious prejudice and misconception, mutual suspicion and mistrust. Today there is, often a unanimous and strong condemnation of crises sparked off in the name of religion by both Christian and Islamic religious leaders. The Sultan of Sokoto, Mohammed Sa’ad Abubakar III, made this inspirational statement: “…. I wish to assure you all of the determination of the religious leaders in Nigeria to make Muslim-Christian conflict a thing of the past.”[6] This and many other reassuring statements issued by religious leaders  have  helped to broker peace, break down the stereotype that tears them apart and makes them intolerably suspicious of one another.


The Catholic Church in Nigeria has been very visible and in the front line in issues of intra and  inter-religious dialogue. Thaddeus B. Umaru corroborated and commended this when he noted that: “The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) has always stressed the need for Christians to dialogue with other religions, especially Islam. This desire has been strengthened with the establishment of a department for dialogue and mission within the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria (CSN).”[7] Aware of the need  for Christian unity, the Catholic Church was co-responsible in  the formation of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in 1976, inspired by Vatican II’s Decree Unitatis Redintegratio (The Restoration of Unity). Those Christians who are separated from the Catholic Church are held in tender esteem.”[8] According to Pope Francis, “Ecumenism is not just a task. It is seeking the unity of the Body of Christ, broken by our sins of division” [9]The quest for ecumenism thus remains one of the Catholic Church’s primary preoccupations as demonstrated by the openness, for example, to mixed marriages, observance of the annual week of prayer for Christian Unity and participation in inter-denominational services without compromising her basic doctrines.

The Catholic Church has also tried to reach out to the indigenous religions by demonstrating that Christianity does not destroy but builds on nature. It is the Church’s conviction that enlightened by divine truth and ennobled by grace they can be lifted up to true virtue and the supernatural life since there are certain practices in these religious that could be used to enrich Christianity even as the latter transforms them. Francis Cardinal Arinze, asserts that “the better ATR is understood by the heralds of the Gospel, the more suitable will be the presentation of Christianity as traditional to Africans…. In this way, the church will be more and more at home in Africa and Africans will be more and more at home in the church.”[10] They acknowledge the existence of a higher god (God), belief in lesser gods and spirits (saints and angels) and veneration of the saints. As Saint Paul tells the people of Athens, “As I walked around looking at your shrines, I even discovered an altar with this inscription: To an unknown God. Now, what you worship as unknown, I intend to make known to you.”[11] This has been the inspirational source for engaging the adherents of ATR.

The Catholic Church tries to encounter other religions by seeking to understand and appreciate both their insights into the human condition and the forms of belief and practice they recommend and inculcate.[12] What is necessary today is for religious and secular communities that differ and disagree, to come to sufficient understanding and appreciation of each other to enable them to enter into positive dialogue and interaction, instead of persisting in the sort of separation, distrust, and warfare that destroys.[13] It is a slow, and often frustrating process but as Pope Benedict XVI has eloquently admonished Africa and indeed Nigeria, “It is important for the Church to promote dialogue as a spiritual disposition, so that believers may learn to work together, for example in associations for justice and peace, in a spirit of trust and mutual help. Families must be educated in attentive listening, fraternity and respect without fear of the other”.[14]

When the Catholic Church raises some concerns about the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), it is not done out of malice but that Christians should be of one mind, heart and soul as the Body of Christ. It is only from the vantage point of Christian unity that any meaningful engagement with our Muslim brothers and sisters is going to bear fruits.

  • The Impact of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria

To reach out and be in touch with every aspect of the nation, the Catholic Church in Nigeria has put in place a functional Secretariat, with four departments and a directorate of Communication. It is the administrative organ of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN).[15] Because this discussion is centred on a multi-religious context, I would like to dwell more specifically on the activities of the department of Mission and Dialogue. The activities of Caritas Nigeria and Justice, Development and Peace Commission, the organs that implement the social decisions of the Church in Nigeria will also be in focus.

  • Department of Mission and Dialogue

The department of Mission and Dialogue coordinates and facilitates activities of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in the area of mission animation and formation of Nigerian Catholics. The department promotes ecumenical dialogue within the Christian family and dialogue with other religious bodies and operates with the committees of Mission, Ecumenism and Inter- Religious Dialogue.

The Mission Committee focuses on animation of priests, religious and laity and on creating awareness for full participation of the people of God in the universal mission of the Church. It operates with a National Missionary Council which draws its membership from the clergy, Religious and laity. It coordinates the missionary activities of the dioceses and religious congregations, especially in the area of the mission ad gentes, sending out missionaries to other dioceses and countries. It also collaborates with the Pontifical Mission Societies (PMS).

The Committee on Ecumenism promotes Christian unity at human, social, political and religious levels. It aims at encouraging the various Christian denominations in the country to study and understand each other better, work together in identifying areas of agreement and deepening them, while seeking solutions to areas of disagreement. The Nigeria Anglican Roman Catholic Commission (NARCC) is one such example, while the Nigeria Catholic Methodist Relation is in the pipeline. Engaging the Pentecostal Churches in a formal way  will hopefully be a natural outcome of this colloquium.

The Committee on Inter-Religious Dialogue seeks to interact with other believers, especially of the African Traditional Religion and the Islamic Religion. Efforts are made to build bridges and to recognize and act as people who believe in the supremacy of God, to cooperate in the promotion of the good of all in Nigeria, and to cultivate the culture of respect for other people’s religion. The Committee helps dioceses, parishes and Religious congregations in their own efforts at dialogue with other religious bodies at the local level.

To take the work of dialogue to the grass root, there is a provincial coordinator in every province and a diocesan director in every diocese to coordinate the work of Inter-religious dialogue. The department of Mission and Dialogue organizes seminars and workshops every year for all the directors of Inter-religious dialogue and ecumenism. The department has visited all the Ecclesiastical Provinces in the country to animate the directors and Inter-Religious Dialogue committees on the meaning and need for dialogue at all levels. The department has also visited all the Major Seminaries in the country to organize workshops for teachers of Dialogue, Ecumenism, Mission, and African Traditional Religion. The Women Religious along with the Catholic Women Organization are also promoting the Catholic/Muslim Women dialogue in various places especially in Northern Nigeria.


In the light of gross economic and political deprivation; the Church has no option but to side with the poor. “There is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor who should never be abandoned.”[16] This explains why the Catholic Church invests heavily in health care projects and schools in rural and urban areas to complement government effort. As Pope Francis puts it, she must stick to the ideals of the Gospel by identifying with the poor, living like them amid the uncertainties of everyday life and renouncing all claims to power and in this way to become brothers and sisters of the poor, bringing the witness of the joy of the Gospel and a sign of God’s love.[17] Equally, the Church cannot afford to fail in its prophetic task of being a light in the nation, highlighting the evils in the society;[18]   neither must she relinquish her task of being the voice of the voiceless in our society. When the underprivileged fail to see the Church on their side then shepherds are only serving themselves. What is required is a disciplined Church where the clergy live modestly and not abuse the privileges that the people of God have granted them. We have seen in recent years how prominent religious figures in our country have lost credibility through close association with high profile politicians and living psychedelic and flamboyant life styles.

  • Caritas Nigeria and JDPC

The executive report to the Board of Directors of Caritas Nigeria on June 9, 2016 reveals in a special way the social role of the Catholic Church in Nigeria in our multi-religious context. This role can be classified as dialogue of engagement, action and encounter with Nigerian citizens who are deprived, distressed and sometimes traumatized irrespective of their religious affiliation. The Catholic Church through Caritas Nigeria has continued to give Community-based care to those infected and affected by HIV.  Apart from various initiatives at the level of the fifty-five dioceses, Caritas Nigeria presently supports 57,930 HIV positive beneficiaries and many more indirect beneficiaries like spouses, children and relatives of persons living with HIV including HIV orphans and vulnerable children across many States in Nigeria.[19]

Caritas Confederation is currently supporting Caritas Nigeria respond to the needs of thousands of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Adamawa and Borno States, in the North East. IDPs in Cameroun were reached with substantial financial help through Caritas Nigeria, even as there are currently a few Nigerian priests who are in Cameroun accompanying the IDPs. The Catholic Church through Caritas Nigeria has been championing the building of a transparent and accountable society where citizens participate in decisions that affect their lives.  The Justice, Development and Peace Commission (JDPC) is engaged in civic education programmes and has been involved in election monitoring to ensure the integrity of elections in the country.

  • Interventions by the Catholic Bishops Conference (CBCN)

The Catholic Bishops of Nigeria issue communiqués addressing national concerns. The communiqués from 1963-2015 have been published into a book titled, “Our Concern for Nigeria: Catholic Bishops Speak”. Last year, the CBCN published its statements on the challenges of corruption and its impediment to the political and socio-economic development of the country from 1960 – 2015. In addition, prayers have been composed for “Nigeria in Distress” and “Against Bribery and Corruption”. National prayer events have also been organised and held to pray for the country.

In the past, the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria have visited the presidency to discuss the way forward for the nation. On May 2, 2016, representatives of the Catholic Bishops paid a courtesy visit to President Muhammadu Buhari, reminding him of his speech in February 2015 as a presidential candidate to the Catholic Bishops, which had the theme: “One Nation Bound in Freedom, Peace, Unity and Love”, in which he re-affirmed his commitment towards ensuring that Nigeria remains a multi-religious state where every individual is free to practise his or her religion of choice.

While commending his efforts in the fight against Boko Haram and against corruption, the Bishops called for justice according to the rule of law, with no sacred cows to be spared. The Bishops informed the President of the role the Catholic Church is playing to bring relief to the displaced persons.

The Bishops requested for a proper investigation into the Agatu killings in Benue State, the Nimbo killings in Enugu State and many other killings in Taraba, Nassarawa, Ondo, Edo, Delta and elsewhere because our people cannot continue to live in perpetual fear of attacks by fellow Nigerians with criminal intent. The Bishops drew the attention of the President to the difficulty of getting land approval for Christian Religious purposes in some parts of the North, the inability to erect Christian places of worship in Federal institutions in some northern states and the difficulty of obtaining certificates of occupancy to build Churches.

The Bishops reminded the President of the harsh economic situation in which our people are living presently. In many States, workers do not receive regular salaries; many pensioners go for months without their pensions, while so many self-employed and non-employed persons and family dependents are struggling to make ends meet. We concluded by assuring Mr. President of our fervent prayers and patriotic support as he and his team struggle to overcome the multi-dimensional challenges facing the country.[20]


While we praise the government for fighting Boko Haram and diminishing their capabilities to thrive as a powerful terrorist organization, the same cannot be said of other areas. Sadly, insecurity is on the rise in other parts of the country, especially the Middle Belt and Niger Delta States. We learn of violent attacks by Fulani herdsmen in different farming communities around the country, the Niger Delta rebellion (Avengers) has reared back its ugly head, religious motivated murders of innocent citizens especially in northern Nigeria, kidnappings, assassinations, armed robberies, cultist and fetish practices, all leading to loss of lives. The Church tries to persuade the relevant authorities to pause and take action on emerging dangerous hate groups and communities. There are many groups like Boko Haram in their infancy. Nipping religious extremism and conditions that allow these groups to evolve in the bud will save society a lot of headache.

The Church insists that religious freedom must be real and any violator of such freedom must face the law. While there has not been identified and chronicled occasion of violence and carnage among Christians of different denominations in Nigeria as it has been between Muslims and Christians, there are perceptible unhealthy competition, scandalous division and contemptible antagonism.  When the Catholic Church opts for dialogue especially with Muslims, some Christians see it as complacency, compromise, weakness and claim that the Catholic Church is betraying her Christian heritage. Some even go on to call names!


The cloud of religious and ethnic co-existence in Nigeria gets thicker because of some criminal activities that now carry the label of religion. Some of the government policies and political appointments are often given a religious interpretation such that some people even perceive these as indicators of a systematic method of endorsing Islam as a national religion. Some Nigerians have concluded that the clash between the herdsmen and the farmers in the various communities in Nigeria is an Islamic agenda. The grazing bill has become another source of controversy. The Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Cardinal John Onaiyekan on May 8, 2016 noted that: “There is a terrible wind blowing around our country right now. There are so many people who are fanning the flames of discord and hatred. It is becoming very difficult to preach unity and mutual natural love and there are those who are already envisaging a clash between Christians and Muslims. There are those who are interpreting the clash between herdsmen and farmers as the front line of this battle”.[21]

It has been alleged that the Curriculum book introduced by the Federal Ministry of Education requires that the children would be taught that Jesus did not die nor resurrect for any body’s sin. The children would be taught that the GLORIOUS QUR’AN is designated as Allah’s Greatest Book and his Prophet Mohammed the Greatest of all the prophets. The Christians feel that this approach to training the young ones is a form of indoctrination that could perpetuate religious intolerance in the country. To enable the Muslim students study Islam authentically and Christian students study the Bible without prejudice, it is highly recommended that Christian Religious Studies and Islamic Religious Studies be allowed to stand separately and be studied as independent subjects with separate textbooks.

Muslims must never get tired of clarifying the concept of peace in Islam by using the verses of tolerance and peace in the Qur’an. They must also show in practice that Islam for instance is not responsible for the apparent institutionalized injustice of not giving land to Christians to build Churches and the conspicuous absence of Church buildings in some Federal and State institutions. Christians must, on their part, resist the fear of Muslims by living authentic Christian witnessing of loving like Jesus in all circumstances. This is the time to redeem religion from the hands of criminals by Christians and Muslims.

  1. Conclusion

The Catholic Church in Nigeria has a deep concern for Christian unity, inter-cultural harmony and inter-religious co-existence for national development. We believe that the adherents of different religions can live together devoid of rancour and savagery and explore civilized approaches in addressing real or perceived grievances. Former British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, noted that “Nigeria’s incessant religious crises will end only if the nation’s politicians are ready to be leaders rather than politicians.”[22] It should not constitute an essential component of our body politic. No religious platform should be used to feather political nests.

Living in a multi-religious society is a great blessing. At the same time, it is most challenging. The Catholic Church, from centuries of experience of engagement with plural societies, should continue to motivate discussions and practical steps in Nigeria which will hopefully lead to a greater openness to God’s presence within the religious life of the nation. Different groups within Nigeria, particularly, Christian and Islamic leaders must free themselves from their fears and artificially restricted visions into a greater intellectual honesty and realism. Genuine religions and religious people are not at war with one another. For too long, war mongers and preachers of hate have been given a field day to spread their hateful messages and almost leading the country to the brink of an outright war. It is never too late to take united action against such bigots in our midst. The right time is now.

[1] George O. Folarin, The Gospel of Prosperity in Nigeria: A Re-Examination of the Concept, Its Impact and Evaluation,

[2] Primate Elijah Ayodele The spiritual leader of INRI Spiritual and Evangelical church, Oke-Afa, Isolo, Lagos. In a chat with Daily post 5th August 2015, among other things said, “We have many selfish Christian leaders, people who only fight for their own, their pocket, their family and what they will eat…. Proliferation of Churches is corruption. No other word to describe it”.

[3] Ludovic Lado, The Roman Catholic Church and African Religions: A problematic Encounter, p. 18

[4] Given that dialogue is a divine initiative, the Catholic Church has responded to this divine call with various documents among which are: Nostra Aetate, Lumen Gentium (Numbers: 1, 13, 16, 17 and 48), Dignitatis Humannae (Numbers 2-4),  Ad Gentes (Numbers 3, 7-11, 13, 15-16, 18, 21-22, 26, 34, 38, and 40-41),  Gaudium et Spes (Numbers 22, 42, 45, 57-58, 73, 76 and 92), Paul VI, Encyclical Letter: Ecclesiam Suam (1964), Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation: Evangelii Nunciandi (1975), John Paul II, Encyclical Letter: Redemptor Hominis (1979), John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation: Familiaris Consortio (1981), John Paul II, Encyclical Letter: Redemptoris Missio (1990), John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation: Ecclesia in Africa (1995), Benedict XVI, Apostolic Exhortation: Africae Munus (2011).

[5] An Islamic Organization, Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) reacted to a statement credited to the current leader of  Boko Haram Al Barnawi.The director of MURIC Prof. Isiaq Akintola described the call to maim Christians as totally despicable.

[6] “Muslim- Christian Relations in Nigeria”, being a Speech delivered by His Eminence, Alhaji Mohammed Sa’ad Abubakar, Sultan of Sokoto at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Washington DC, 13 November, 2007

[7] Thaddeus B. Umaru, Christian- Muslim Dialogue in Northern Nigeria: A Socio- Political and Theological Consideration, Xlibris LLC, USA, 2013, p. 192

[8] The Catholic Church in an Independent Nigeria: Joint Pastoral Letter of the Nigerian Hierarchy, October 1st 1960

[9] Address of Pope Francis to the Third Worldwide Priests’ Retreat, Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome, Italy, June 12, 2015.

[10] Cardinal Francis Arinze, Pastoral Attention to African Traditional Religions, Rome, 25th March, 1988

[11] Acts 17: 22

[12] Kaufman, “Religious Diversity, Historical Consciousness and Christian Theology” in The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, Ed. By John Hick and Paul Knitter, London: SCM Press Ltd., 1988, p. 4.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Pope Benedict XVI, Africae Munus,… p, 26, accessed, 29/07/2016.

[15] Cornelius A. Omonokhua, The Joy of Service; Dialogue of Action (Kaduna, Virtual Insignia, 2015) P. 157

[16] Ibid. 2.

[17] Pope Francis, Message of Pope Francis for World Mission Day 2015, 2

[18] George Omaku Ehusani, A Prophetic Church, (Ibadan, Intec Printers Limited, 1996), 2.

[19] Namely: Benue, Kogi, Nasarawa, Plateau; Delta, Oyo, Ondo, Ogun, Osun, and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). The 18 priority LGAs are located in Benue (7), Nasarawa (5), Lagos and the FCT (2) where scale-up involved the activation of 14 new comprehensive treatment centres; 16 new PMTCT sites as well as the upgrade of 4 PMTCT sites to comprehensive centres.




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1 Response

  1. It takes great courage to insist on trailing the path of peace despite the temptations drawing us towards the lure by cants of traumatized witnesses, and relations of victims which may be misconstrued by their losses rather than be driven by the gospel may resort to self help, and to be a leader at that point in time bring upon oneself great aches and pain. I admit imagining how it would feel to lead in such a situation and if i were there i would have failed and yeilded to the pain, sorrow and myself picked up a dagger. May God be merciful once more to see you through all this dark days for his mercy and grace are forevermore.

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