Reverend Jonah Hamidu Freeson, is Borno State Chairman of Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, a major bloc with over 120 denominational Churches under the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). Hamidu is also the General Overseer of Christ Shepherd House, Maiduguri, a Church he founded after quitting the Nigeria Police Force as a counter- Terrorism expert. In this interview with a group of journalists in Maiduguri, the Reverend spoke on how the lingering Boko Haram terror has affected churches in Borno State with assessment of Government response NDAHI MARAMA IN MAIDUGURI brings in the EXCERPTS:-
Reverend, you have been in Borno for quite sometime and seen the carnage, in what ways are churches or the Christian community which you serve, been affected?
When the crisis began in 2009, Boko Haram attacks were targeted at Christians, but as time went by, they (Insurgents) expanded the attacks generally to both Christians, our Muslim brothers and anybody.
The insurgency has adversely affected the people of Borno State particularly the Christendom as I said, if we are to go back to the beginning in 2009 and the continued effects. There have been so many houses that were burnt down without compensation.
There were shops and private enterprises that have been devastated, so many people have been killed with others rendered homeless, jobless, and many also were forcefully rendered orphans, unaccompanied Children and widows. But God is helping us, by His Grace we are now forging ahead.
You said there was no compensation, so what has been the response of the State Government especially to the Christian community which is in minority?
To be specific, from 2009 there has been no compensation to any Christian based on my understanding, but we are most grateful to the present government under the leadership of Governor Kashim Shettima who inherited the crisis from his predecessor in 2011. Let us put politics aside, we have never had any governor in Muslim majority Borno state building burnt churches, until the coming of Governor Shettima.
The governor based on my understanding and the realities on ground, has tried in that aspect. May be government is doing its rebuilding process in phases, because as it is, the National Evangelical, the E.Y.N (church of Brethren), the Catholic churches and the rest of them in Maiduguri metropolis were affected by the crisis in previous years and I have not heard any thing about intervention.
However, Based on the briefings of the Chairman Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Borno Chapter, Bishop Mohammed Naga which I have been privileged to know, Governor Shettima has approved and released money for the rebuilding of most of the burnt churches in Hawul, Askira-Uba and Chibok Local Government Areas that are predominantly Christian communities.
Also, it would interest you to know that when Bishop of Anglican Communion of Nigeria, Maiduguri Diocese, Most Rev. Emmanuel Kana Mani (of Blessed Memory), died in February last year as a result of brief illness, Governor Shettima gave the sum of N10 million cash to the bereaved family.
He also pledged to give a befitting accommodation to the family in one the estates built by his administration. This is a departure from experiences of Christians under previous administrations. In fact, under previous administration, some of our pastors were killed by terrorists and nothing was done to appease their families left behind not to talk of those who died naturally like Kana Mani.
Reverend, you seem to commend the Governor over rebuilding of churches but how do you react to the position of some Nigerians who think Government should have no involvement with places of worship since religion is a personal issue?
Who told you Government is not supposed to be involved in religious matters? Churches and Mosques are public buildings because they are places where citizens who are the public, converge. Church or Mosque is a public building. Moreover, we are talking about rebuilding. These places were destroyed. If government has the resources should assist in rebuilding places of worship that were destroyed. It is a right step. Citizens have rights to worship. Given the crisis, people don’t have the resources as their economy has been destroyed, their homes have been destroyed and they don’t have anywhere to live and worship, and so, it is good thing that the Governor, Kashim Shettima is doing as part of government rebuilding processes.
Apart from rebuilding churches, in what other ways can you score the relationship between the State Government and the Christian community?
Personally, I know that since Governor Shettima came on board in 2011, he has been sponsoring many Christians on annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This gives Christians a sense of belonging the way Muslims are sponsored for Hajj. This sense of fairness enhances coexistence, builds love and inter-faith trust which contributes to peace in any society. This helps because for example Islamic scholars and traditional rulers in my area are very wonderful. We have been living as members of the same family.
We are very cordial with them, anything I want to do, I will meet them and inform them, and also, anything the Bulamas (Village Heads) or the Imams want to do, they will come to me and inform me as well. Citizens of different faith will only work together when their leader doesn’t take side against one religion in a manner that shows clear injustice. What I think that is most important about Shettima is that, he is a leader that listens and this is very important to us. Any time we call on him, he gives us a listening ear on all issues.
I am happy to inform you that this governor and his administration has not neglected the Christian community like previous Governors did. Presently, so many people particularly we in the Christendom have been saying that governor Shettima is the best governor Borno has ever had in terms of relating with Christians.
And this is what I can say because, I don’t know other aspect of his personal life, but in relating with Christians, the man is excellent from day one. Let me give you an instance, during former governor Ali Modu Sheriff led-government, the man does not relate with Christians, and that was why he refused to rebuild or compensate any church that was burnt down in 2006.
He feels Christians don’t have good numbers in elections here in Borno State. But it will interest you to know that governor Shettima’s body language is more about building peace. He has been very careful as an educated and refined leader.
These are what I can say about the governor and his concern about the Christians in the state. This relationship can be sustained if the Christians would also pray for the governor to succeed. Although his tenure is coming to an end next year, we still have long way to go, because, it is through collective prayers from all and sundry that government can succeed. The governor also has a role to play in sustaining this relationship if he doesn’t fall for any biased influence.
Were you here during Sheriff’s tenure, because it appears you are confident with what transpired in that government?
Yes, I was around and also a living witness to what transpired against the Christian Community under Ali Modu Sheriff.
You have talked about inter-faith relationships between the Government and religious leaders, what is the situation in terms of the wider Borno society outside Government?
There is clear extension of this. For example, recently the military here in Borno State called a meeting with Muslim leaders, like the Imams and the Christian leaders where we interacted with them for about three to four times on how we will work collectively for the peace and development of the state.
We have discussed extensively on issues related to how we will continue to relate and pray together so that God will hear us and answer our prayers at the same time, so I can testify to you that what we are doing together in Maiduguri, if extended to other states of the federation, it will take us a long way and Nigeria can be a great Nation. The problem with us in Nigeria is that most people, especially leaders do not think of the future. It is unfortunate as we only have a short plan rather than a long plan in our lives.
The religious crisis in some part of the Northern Nigeria is caused by selfish people, people who don’t think of tomorrow like I said earlier. These people are called fanatics who are sponsoring jobless and heartless people to achieve their selfish interest, these are people who do not respect humanity.
And this situation can be curtailed if our leaders educate them, provide them with jobs, and incentives to make them engaged. It is unfortunate that any destruction we are doing now in the name of religion will definitely tell on our children-children.