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By Chidi Nkwopara, Marie-Therese Nanlong, Rotimi Ojomoyela & Luminous Jannamike, OWERRI

Angry members of the Roman Catholic Church yesterday condemned Governor Simon Lalong’s reference to the Pope in defence of his acceptance to serve as Director-General of the All Progressives Congress, APC, Presidential Campaign Council for the 2023 election.

But the governor in a swift reaction yesterday, said his reference to the Pope was a mark of reverence, not ridicule as perceived by some Nigerians.

These came on a day Catholic Bishops of Owerri Ecclesiastical Province expressed concern over the high level of  misery, pessimism, activities of violent people, unemployment and suffering in Nigeria.

This is even as Catholic Bishops, under the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, SECAM, bemoaned the upsurge of insecurity in Africa and appealed for intervention by foreign forces to put an end to the menace.

It will be recalled that the Plateau governor had backed the idea of  Muslim-Muslim ticket after a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari at State House in Abuja.

He stated that, as a Catholic with the highest Papal award of Knight of Saint Gregory, the Pope had not told him what he was doing was wrong.

But miffed by Lalong’s comment, the Catholic faithful berated him for dragging the Holy Father into the country’s murky politics and the unsavoury rhetorics of the 2023 election.

They also called for his immediate suspension from the church for alleged blasphemy.

‘Lalong must apologise’

While briefing journalists in Abuja, under the aegis of Concerned Catholics in Nigeria, the religious denomination insisted that Governor Lalong must tender an unreserved apology for the global embarrassment his ‘unguarded’ remarks caused the Pope and the entire Church.

President of the group, Dr Ben Amodu, vowed that the Catholic community in Nigeria would ensure that the governor was made to atone for his public “blasphemous statement” about the Pope and the Church. 

Amodu said: “We are alarmed that Governor Simon Bako Lalong would elect to throw caution into the wind by dragging the revered Catholic Church into local politics in Nigeria for whatever it is worth.

“The reference to the Pope in his statement for accepting to serve as the Director General of the APC Presidential Campaign Council was made in poor taste and a puerile attempt to drag the Catholic Church into a matter that has no bearing with the Pope.

“It remains a shame that politicians would stop at nothing to win elections, even to the detriment of selling their birthrights for a plate of porridge, as in the case of Governor Simon Bako Lalong who, after accepting to serve as the D-G of the Presidential Campaign Council, elected to justify his actions using the name of the Pope.

“We find it hard to believe that Governor Lalong would find it morally convenient to drag the Pope and the entire Catholic community into the APC politics of  Muslim-Muslim ticket.

“It is an act of aberrance in desperation to serve his paymasters, hence the despicable statement by Governor Lalong in seeking the justification for his actions, which falls within his rights, but not to the detriment of the collective sensibilities of other Catholics in Nigeria and around the world.

“We are tempted to believe that Governor Lalong wants to incite religious tension in the country to pitch the Catholic and Protestant communities against each other in an unhealthy debate over the Muslim-Muslim ticket of  APC.

“The desperation of APC in forcing its Muslim-Muslim ticket down the throats of Nigerians is alarming, and more curious is the fact that Governor Lalong, a practising Catholic who supposedly knows that the Catholic Church is not involved in partisan politics, but still went ahead to insinuate that the Pope is in support of his decision smacks a mockery of the revered Catholic Church in Nigeria and around the world.

“Concerned Catholics in Nigeria find the statement of Governor Lalong distrustful and capable of causing a crisis of unimaginable proportion in the country in the attempt to distract and divide the Christian community that has been vehement in rejecting whatever narrative the APC wants to push forward in justification of its Muslim-Muslim ticket.

“Governor Lalong has displayed a tendency that he does not identify with the religious sensitivity in the country. He has carried on like the typical politician who thinks only about himself and his immediate family, not minding the consequences of his actions on the overall psyche of others, as in this case.

“It remains baffling for the Catholic community that a supposed Knight would condescend so low to throw everything he has held dearly over several decades because he wants to remain politically relevant after his tenure as governor of Plateau State.

“The Concerned Catholics in Nigeria condemns such despicable conduct as it is not reflective of the stance of the Pope and the Catholic Church in Nigeria and around the world concerning the political permutations in Nigeria.

“Therefore, Governor Lalong must consequently tender an unreserved apology to the Catholic community in Nigeria for dragging the Pope into the murky waters of Nigerian politics. It remains unjustifiable and as much condemnable.

“The Concerned Catholics in Nigeria wish to state unequivocally that Governor Lalong does not represent the Catholic community in Nigeria, as his membership in the Catholic Church remains suspect and a subject for further investigation. “We are also using this medium to call for the suspension of Governor Lalong from the Catholic Church for bringing the Church into disrepute and maligning the name of the Pope for his advantage and that of his party, the All Progressive Congress, APC.

“The leadership of the Catholic community in Nigeria must ensure that Governor Lalong is made to atone for his blasphemous statement about the Pope and the Catholic Church in public.”

Lalong explains  reference to Pope

However, following the backlash that has trailed his comment, the Plateau State governor, Simon Lalong, yesterday explained that his reference to the Pope was a mark of reverence, and not meant to ridicule him. He lamented that part of what he said in the interview he granted in Abuja was used as “propaganda by politicians.”

In a statement issued in Jos by Makut Macham, his Director of Press and Public Affairs, Governor Lalong said he has the highest regard for Christians and Church Authority and will continue to work hard in promoting the interests of Christians and adherents of other religions.

“Governor, Simon Lalong has said that contrary to insinuations and misconceptions being imputed into his interview granted to State House correspondents at the Presidential Villa where he explained that as a Catholic and a Papal Knight, the Pope has not told him that accepting the position of Director-General of the APC Presidential Campaign Council was wrong, the statement was out of reverence and not disregard for the Holy Father, Catholic Church or Christianity.

“It was unfortunate that part of the interview has been excised and used by politicians for propaganda and misinformation about his personality, faith and political persuasion

“He said his reference to the Holy Father, the Pope, was to emphasise that as a Christian born and raised in the Catholic faith, accepting the assignment given to him by his party, the APC, of which I am a founding member does not in any way remove his faith in Jesus Christ or my commitment to the Church in Nigeria and universally…

“He reiterates that he has the highest regard for Christians and Church Authority and will continue to work hard in promoting the interests of Christians and adherents of other religions based on love, justice, equity and fairness which are encouraged in the Holy Bible and the Constitution of Nigeria.

“Although he understands and appreciates the concerns of Christians over the emergence of Muslim, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu as APC Presidential candidate and choice the of Vice Presidential nominee, Senator Kashim Shettima, also a Muslim, the situation does not warrant Christians within the party leaving the party or refusing to accept responsibilities because being within a system makes it easy to address grievances than being outside.

“The emergence of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu was not on a religious basis, as even Christians voted for him during the APC primaries. He also appealed to Nigerians, irrespective of religious persuasions, to unite and work towards addressing the major challenges of the nation by actively participating in the political process and ensuring they push forward their interests, rather than allowing religious sentiments to override their desire to assess issues from a wholistic perspective…”

Level of misery, pessimism, insecurity, unemployment, suffering in Nigeria worrisome — Catholic Bishops

Dissecting the security situation in the country, Catholic Bishops of Owerri Ecclesiastical Province yesterday expressed concern over the high level misery, pessimism, activities of violent people, unemployment and suffering in the country.

The Bishops in a six-point communique signed by the Chairman and Secretary, Archbishop Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji and Most Rev. Augustine Echema, in Owerri respectively, said:  “Great misery and pessimism have enveloped our country Nigeria.

‘’To put it mildly, there is great suffering in the land, as people run from one crisis to another. Our people are becoming more indigent day by day, with growing unemployment, underemployment and inflation, which have made basic commodities unreachable to many families.

“This is a great shame to such a naturally endowed country like Nigeria. All these problems are man-made. We have often in the past decried the rampant corruption, greed and selfishness that are ravaging our society, which have sentenced many of our people to wanton suffering and early death.

“We must, once more, renew our call to those in charge of our commonwealth, to all privileged people of our society, whether in trade, industry, or government, to be more compassionate and considerate to our poor suffering masses. We also call on all to rediscover our traditional communal and philanthropic spirit, to help alleviate the pains of our suffering brothers and sisters.”

Directing their minds to level of insecurity in Imo and Abia states, the Bishops said: “Our society is in trouble. No one appears to be safe; not even those in power. Violent groups are on the rampage – bandits, kidnappers, assassins, trigger-happy security forces, illegal security entities and paramilitary groups. Innocent lives are being lost.

“There is great fear and anxiety in our states, along with socio-economic dislocations. We cannot continue in this path. Our society has bled so much. No doubt we know that there are those who are driven to violence by understandable grievances.

“Yet violence can never be a solution to our current socio-political problems. We cannot destroy ourselves in the name of saving ourselves. We reiterate that the reason for government is to protect lives and property of the citizens.

‘’There have been repeated reports from many places of exaggerated use of force by government security agencies, and at times summary execution of alleged offenders.

“We, therefore, appeal to all those behind this cycle of violence to stop.  ‘’Our society should be governed by the rule of law, and not by jungle justice. Offenders should be prosecuted in the courts to ensure justice to all. We must also insist that there is no substitute to good governance for security at all levels.

“Therefore, government should provide our young people an environment for positive human development and material well-being. We use this opportunity to condole with the grieving families of security personnel who are killed in the line of duty.

‘’Our hearts bleed for all the victims of violence and callous killing in our states today – especially the recent killings in Orogwe, Awo-Omamma, Izombe, Ihube, Leru, Isuochi and other places. We pray that God grant the dead eternal repose and consolation to the bereaved.”

On the fate of education and the future of Nigerian students, the clerics decried what they described as “the lamentable state of affairs in our educational sector”.

In their words: “For months now, academic activities in our public universities and other tertiary institutions have been grounded as a result of the strike embarked upon by the various unions, including the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU.

“It is a pity that the educational sector has become a theater of neglect and indifference, symptomatic of the generalized decay and negligence which have affected all aspects of our national life.

‘’Countries normally invest in their young people and prioritize knowledge and human capacity development, but not so in Nigeria. There is no doubt that the current situation is adversely affecting the students who waste away in idleness and are exposed to destructive social vices.”

Catholic Bishops bemoan upsurge of terrorism, criminality in Africa, call for foreign intervention

Similarly, Catholic Bishops, under the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, SECAM, have also bemoaned the upsurge in insecurity engulfing the African continent, appealing for  intervention  of foreign forces to put an end to the menace.

SECAM said the rising wave of  kidnapping, sectarian war, banditry, herders-farmers’ clashes, and terrorism  on the continent, was threatening the very existence of the continent, noting that partnering foreign forces would be of immense benefit in halting the orgy of killings of innocent souls.

This was part of the resolutions reached after its 19th Assembly   Plenary   of the   episcopal body held in Accra, Ghana, with the theme: “Ownership of SECAM: Security and Migration in Africa”.

The resolution, made available to journalists in Ado Ekiti by the Catholic Bishop of Ekiti, Most Rev Felix Ajakaye, yesterday, lamented that several regions of Africa were experiencing unwarranted killings due to poverty and economic deprivation.

The Bishops stated that poor handling of the economy and weaponisation of religion for political gains were also responsible for   the violence rocking African nations.

The clerics said: “Several regions of our continent are experiencing insecurity due to socio-political instability, violence, poverty, weak health structures, insurgency, terrorism, exploitation of religion for political purposes and lack of respect for environment and good governance.

“These situations are causes of anxiety for our people. This is why we are sending a message to all people of goodwill to help put an end to them.

“The social and political stakeholders as well as decision makers have a heavy responsibility in the management of our countries. We urge them to continue to do their utmost to fight insecurity for our people and Africa.

“We also urge foreign forces to get involved in fighting this insecurity and in building lasting peace and security on the African continent.”

The clergymen persuaded African citizens, including church leaders , to coalesce efforts with governments of their countries in building peace, warning that perceiving issue of security as government’s sole responsibility would further spell doom for the populace.

The Bishops appealed to leaders to fashion out policies that would discourage irregular immigration by African citizens. “We urge leaders and decision makers to put in place structures and conditions that will discourage irregular migration, especially promoting good governance, social justice, social inclusion employment opportunities and fighting insecurity.

“To all intending migrants, especially young people who seek to exercise their rights to migrate, we urge you to do so in manner that is administratively acceptable. We urge you not to loose hope for a better

“We wish to express our pains in seeing our youth leaving our countries , knowing that they are going to suffer and possibly lose their lives, we lament our inability to stop them from leaving.”

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