ACI Africa, Jan 26, 2024 / 11:40 am (CNA).
Last year, 2023, was a difficult year for Brother Peter Olarewaju, a postulant at the Benedictine monastery in Nigeria’s Ilorin Diocese who was kidnapped alongside two others at the monastery. Olarewaju underwent different kinds of torture and witnessed the murder of his companion, Brother Godwin Eze.
After his release, Olarewaju said his kidnapping was a blessing, as it had strengthened his faith. He even said that he is now prepared to die for his faith.
“I am prepared to die a martyr in this dangerous country. I am ready any moment to die for Jesus. I feel this very strongly,” Olarewaju said in an interview with ACI Africa, CNA’s news partner in Africa, on Nov. 26, 2023, days after he was set free by suspected Fulani kidnappers.
The monk’s testimony is not an isolated case in Nigeria, where kidnapping from seminaries, monasteries, and other places of religious formation has been on the rise. While some victims of the kidnappings have been killed, those who survived the ordeal have shared that they have come back stronger — and ready to die for their faith.
Seminarian Melchior Maharini, a Tanzanian who was kidnapped alongside a priest from the Missionaries of Africa community in the Diocese of Minna in August 2023, said the suffering he endured during the three weeks he was held captive strengthened his faith. “I felt my faith grow stronger. I accepted my situation and surrendered everything to God,” he told ACI Africa on Sept. 1, 2023.
Many other seminarians in Nigeria have been kidnapped by Boko Haram militants, Fulani herdsmen, and other bandit groups operating in Africa’s most populous nation.
In August 2023, seminarian David Igba told ACI Africa that he stared death in the face when a car in which he was traveling on his way to the market in Makurdi was sprayed with bullets by Fulani herdsmen.
In September 2023, seminarian Na’aman Danlami was burned alive in a botched kidnapping incident in the Diocese of Kafanchan. A few days earlier, another seminarian, Ezekiel Nuhu, from the Archdiocese of Abuja, who had gone to spend his holidays in Southern Kaduna, was kidnapped.
Two years prior, in October 2021, Christ the King Major Seminary of Kafanchan Diocese was attacked and three seminarians were kidnapped.
In one attack that attracted global condemnation in 2020, seminarian Michael Nnadi was brutally murdered after he was kidnapped alongside three others from Good Shepherd Major Seminary in the Diocese of Kaduna. Those behind the kidnapping confessed that they killed Nnadi because he would not stop preaching to them, fearlessly calling them to conversion.
After Nnadi’s murder, his companions who survived the kidnapping proceeded to St. Augustine Major Seminary in Jos in Nigeria’s Plateau state, where they courageously continued with their formation.
As Christian persecution rages in Nigeria, seminary instructors in the country have shared with ACI Africa that there is an emerging spirituality in Nigerian seminaries that many may find difficult to grasp: the spirituality of martyrdom.
They say that in Nigeria, those who embark on priestly formation are continuously being made to understand that their calling now entails being ready to defend the faith to the point of death. More than ever before, the seminarians are being reminded that they should be ready to face persecution, including the possibility of being kidnapped and even killed.
Father Peter Hassan, rector of St. Augustine Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Jos, Plateau state, said that seminaries, just like the wider Nigerian society, have come to terms with “the imminence of death” for being Christian.
“Nigerian Christians have been victims of violence of apocalyptic proportions for nearly half a century. I can say that we have learned to accept the reality of imminent death,” Hassan said in a Jan. 12 interview with ACI Africa.
He added: “Nevertheless, it is quite inspiring and comforting to see the many young men who are still ready to embrace a life that will certainly turn them into critically endangered species. Yet these same young men are willing to preach the gospel of peace and embrace the culture of dialogue for peaceful coexistence.”
Shortly after Nnadi’s kidnapping and killing, St. Augustine Major Seminary opened its doors to the three seminarians who survived the kidnapping.
Hassan told ACI Africa that the presence of the three former students of Good Shepherd Major Seminary was “a blessing” to the community of St. Augustine Major Seminary.
“Their presence in our seminary was a blessing to our seminarians, a wake-up call to the grim reality that not even the very young are spared by those mindless murderers,” Hassan said.
Back at Good Shepherd, seminarians have remained resilient, enrolling in large numbers even after the 2020 kidnapping and Nnadi’s murder.
In an interview with ACI Africa, Father Samuel Kanta Sakaba, the rector of Good Shepherd Major Seminary, said that instructors at the Catholic institution, which has a current enrollment of 265 seminarians, make it clear that being a priest in Nigeria presents the seminarians with the danger of being kidnapped or killed.
ACI Africa asked Sakaba whether or not the instructors discuss with the seminarians the risks they face, including that of being kidnapped, or even killed, to which the priest responded: “Yes, as formators, we have the duty to take our seminarians through practical experiences — both academic, spiritual, and physical experiences. We share this reality of persecution with them, but for them to understand, we connect the reality of Christian persecution in Nigeria to the experiences of Jesus. This way, we feel that it would be easier for them to not only have the strength to face what they are facing but to also see meaning in their suffering.”
“Suffering is only meaningful if it is linked with the pain of Jesus,” the priest said. “The prophet Isaiah reminds us that ‘by his wounds, we are healed.’ Jesus also teaches us that unless the grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it will remain a single grain, but that it is only when it falls and dies that it yields a rich harvest. Teachings such as these are the ones that deepen our resilience in the face of persecution.”
Sakaba spoke of the joy of those who look forward to “going back to God in a holy way.”
“Whatever happens, we will all go back to God. How joyful it is to go back to God in a holy way, in a way of sacrifice.” he said. “This holiness is accepting this cross, this pain. Jesus accepted the pain of Calvary, and that led him to his resurrection. Persecution purifies the individual for them to become the finished product for God. I believe that these attacks are God’s project, and no human being can stop God’s work.”
However, the rector clarified that those who enroll at the seminary do not go out seeking danger.
“People here don’t go out putting themselves in situations of risk,” he said. “But when situations such as these happen, the teachings of Jesus and his persecution give us courage to face whatever may come our way.”
Sakaba said that although priestly formation in Nigeria is embracing the “spirituality of martyrdom,” persecution in the West African country presents “a difficult reality.”
“It is difficult to get used to pain. It is difficult to get used to the issues of death … to get familiar with death,” he said. “No one chooses to go into danger just because other people are suffering; it is not part of our nature. But in a situation where you seem not to have an alternative, the grace of God kicks in to strengthen you to face the particular situation.”
Sakaba said that since the 2020 attack at Good Shepherd Major Seminary, the institution has had an air of uncertainty. He said that some of the kidnappers who were arrested in the incident have been released, a situation he said has plunged the major seminary into “fear of the unknown.”
“It hasn’t been easy for us since the release,” Sabaka told ACI Africa. “The community was thrown into confusion because of the unknown. We don’t know what will happen next. We don’t know when they will come next or what they will do to us. We don’t know who will be taken next.”
In the face of that, however, Sabaka said the resilience of the seminary community has been admirable. “God has been supporting, encouraging, and leading us. His grace assisted us to continue to practice our faith,” he said.
The jihadist attacks, which continue unabated in communities surrounding the seminary, do not make the situation easier.
“Every attack that happens outside our community reminds us of our own 2020 experience. We are shocked, and although we remain deeply wounded, we believe that God has been leading us,” he said.
This story was first published by ACI Africa, CNA’s news partner in Africa, and has been adapted by CNA.