‘Guns alone cannot stop terrorism’
Reverend Father Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua is the Director of Mission and Dialogue, Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria. He is also a consulter to the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims (CRRM.), Vatican City where he is the only African representative. The Professor of African-Christian Theology was ordained Catholic Priest on September 25, 1995. In a silver jubilee anniversary mood, he told Bridget Chiedu Onochie, among other things, that the guns alone cannot stop terrorism but some level of dialogue. The reason being that terrorism is an ideology and that one cannot kill an idea with a gun
How of the dialogue option has Nigeria exploited? Nigeria has exploited the option of dialogue only in one dimension and that is by actively supporting Nigerian Inter-Religious Council (NIREC). NIREC has 50 members, 25 from the Christian bloc and 25 from the Muslim bloc.
NIREC has two co-chairmen – whoever is the Sultan of Sokoto and is the President of Nigerian Islamic affairs and the President, Christian Association Nigeria (CAN). NIRED has been working well but the big problem is that the leadership of NIREC on the Christian side changes with tenure of the president whereas that of the Muslims is apparently permanent.
The Sultan of Sokoto remains the co-chairman as long as he lives. In other words, from the Christian perspective, the level of continuity has some problems. That is the only area government is actively involved, but government again has not utilised NIREC maximally.
The reason is that a committee was set up to dialogue with Boko Haram outside NIREC. That actually was the work of NIREC and at the end, that committee did not come out with any positive result. But I would like to say that dialogue actually is not the role of government and that is the reason it is not succeeding. Dialogue has its root in the church. Initially, the Catholic Church was not flowing with other churches until the second Vatican Council when they came out with a document called Nostra Etete – that is the relation with people of other religions. That document is 50 years and would be celebrated in October.
It was the document that opened up dialogue with Muslims and people of other religions that are not Christians. This office you are sitting in is the Office of the Department of Mission and Dialogue. So, the Catholic in Nigeria has to bring down dialogue from the universal and Pontifical levels to the national level by creating the Department of Mission and Dialogue. This department has links with others. There is a unit that dialogue with churches that are not Catholics; there is also inter-religious dialogue unit which is dialogue with non-Christians although in Nigeria, our dialogue is reduced to African Traditional Religion and Islam since we do not have much of Buddhist and Hindus.
First, we need something more than inter-religious dialogue. What we need most is intra-religious dialogue where the Christians should talk among themselves so that we can better organise ourselves to reach out to people of other religions. The Muslims should be able to come out to identify who they are. For instance, the Muslim Umar should be able to identify who the financiers of Boko Haram are.
Then, the traditional religion worshippers in our communities should be able to look inward into the community and fish out culprits. If it is not the shielding and the protection of traditional institutions in Northern Nigeria, the terrorists would not have the kind of foothold they have there. Like I said in most of my publications, the guns alone cannot stop terrorism. We still need some level of dialogue and how Nigeria is going to deal with this is another problem. The reason is that terrorism is an ideology and you cannot kill an idea with a gun. You can only kill an idea with a counter-narrative of a superior idea than that of the terrorists.
Between Catholic stance against divorce and domestic violence
Yes, the Catholic Church supports monogamy, no divorce. Because the Catholic Church believes that marriage is a divine institution, it puts certain procedures in place before marriage. Let me start from the scientific procedure; the church understands that one of the problems of marriage could be sickness. They ensured that there is pre-marital courses where the man and the lady who want to engage in marriage need to provide their genotype. So, if they are AA and AS, they can marry; if they are AA and AA, they can marry but if they are AS and AS, they cannot and if they are AS and SS, they cannot. Also in marriage, the church tries to see that there are no deceits because such conditions can even lead to nullification of marriage.
For instance, a woman who had abortion and in the process the productive system was affected and she did not tell the man but long after marriage, it was discovered. That was marriage by deceit and the church could say there was never marriage. Also, in as much as we encourage married couples to pray, there is something I believe that one should find out more about the person. They should be able to identify the strong point of their life, emphasise the strength of the woman and that will cover up the negative aspects.
The Catholic Church will do everything possible to ensure that husband and wife live a happy life but where there are critical issues of trust and others, they will find out if there was marriage in the first place and if there was no marriage in the first place (where there is deceit by a party at the beginning), then, they seek for nullification of marriage. So, the summery is that the Catholic Church does not encourage divorce but it does everything possible before and during marriage to ensure that the marriage is sustained.
25 years as a priest
I feel that I was truly called by God. In the first instance, I was not supposed to be a priest because of my family background. It was a combination of traditional and Islamic religions. I was born in an environment that could not expose me to Catholic Priesthood. I attended an Anglican primary school and I was forced to attend service in Anglican Church but my father would insist I go to farm on Sundays. I am the only son of my mother.
We are only two from my mother. She got married and spent eight years before giving birth to my elder sister. She waited for another nine years before I was born. So, they were expecting I was going to get so many wives to give them many grandchildren. This was my situation but when I started going to Catholic Church, I had a feeling I was going to be a priest, but I was scared to tell my parents.
On a second thought, I wanted to be a radical lawyer and if that did not work, I wanted to be a radical journalist like Dele Giwa. But one day, I had a mystical dream – a woman appeared to me, beautiful, glorious and bright like a morning star and she introduced herself as the mother of God and said, ‘I know your feelings; you are worried but you will go to the seminary to worship God as a Catholic Priest.’ But I pleaded that my son should be a priest in my place. I woke up sweating. That was what happened and though I was a dull pupil, I jumped to an average student and transformed to a student of distinction in the seminary.
I was not delayed and I did not have any problem as a seminarian. I entered with a white card and I finished with a white card. I was ordained and since then, it has been wonderful. I have worked in many parishes before going for my Masters programme. In all these, God has been faithful.
Challenges as a priest
One of the challenges I have is how to be a light to the world and how to be sane in the presence of relationships. It is how to keep up the vows I have taken – the vow of chastity that I will not marry, the vow of obedience that I will be loyal and the vow of poverty. It may surprise you to know that as I am sitting down here, I have no car of my own but God takes me to wherever I want to go. The greatest challenge I had was when I was offered scholarship to do a doctorate in France. I prepared my documents and my luggage, suddenly my Bishop sent for me. He handed me an envelop; I thought it was the permission to travel but when I opened it, it was a transfer to a village – Ibilo.
He said there was a crises between the village and another and that I should go there. I asked about my scholarship and he said he has changed his mind. So, someone else had to utilise my scholarship and someone who took over the scholarship is still my friend. That challenge defined the course of my Priesthood and I can tell you that it has been wonderful; it was the best that has ever happened to me. I would think that I will not survive a day if I quit my priesthood. My parents were happy I became a priest. They were baptised and were devout Christians before they died.
Ever sad you have no biological children?
Not at all! The family I have is even too large for me to manage because the whole world has become my family. It does not hurt me at all. It does not occur to me one day that I do not have a wife and that I do not have biological children. Not that I do not love a wife or that I do not love children but I now see the world as my global family.
Your goal as a priest
I want to get distinction in RIP. I want to die and meet God. The only target I have is to die and meet God.
The two books to be launched at the anniversary
The first book is titled Dialogue In Contest. It is the book that was motivated by my zeal for dialogue and my work at the provincial, national and pontifical levels. It is a trend of events that have happened in Nigeria. It deals with socio-political issues and the dynamics of dialogue and that there is a lot we can do in Nigeria through dialogue. The second book is titled The Joy of Service. It is an explication of the joy I feel as a Priest and the dialogue that we can have within ourselves in our various religions so that we can make the world a better place.
The anniversary celebration
Dead people do not bury themselves. I am supposed to be celebrated. So, there is a committee in place and it has decided to hide it plans from me. I believe that the day would be great. There is accommodation for visitors and there is a poem that I have transformed to a song. It would be sung for me that day.
Writing on lslam and Christianity
I studied Islamic Theology in the Seminary. Since then, I keep doing research on Islam. I have read the Holy Qur’an, various Hadits and Sunnah. I have also read Islamic scholars. I study Islamic theology not with the aim of criticising the religion but to build up enough capacity and skills to dialogue with my Muslim partners. One of the principles of dialogue is that we must be vast in our religion with a very deep faith and understand also the religion of the other. This is one of the ways we can build bridges and discover common grounds in inter-religious relations. The aim of dialogue is not conversion but mutual understanding based on respect and freedom of religion.
Are you comfortable with your radical approach to issues in your writings?
I think most of my writings are diagnostic and expository with the aim of letting the truth, frankness, honesty and courage to guide our public discourse. I am not scared because only the truth can set you free. Moreover, our Lord and Master Jesus Christ laid down his life witnessing to the truth. All the apostles of Jesus except John the Beloved died martyrs. It appears that the world is allergic to the truth!