Michael D. Higgins’s statement after the assault on the church congregation in Nigeria on Pentecost Sunday has attracted deserved criticism.
At least 40 defenceless Catholics were murdered in the prolonged gun and bomb attack which authorities have attributed to the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) group.
This Boko Haram offshoot is committed to exterminating Christianity in the region, yet the response from Higgins ignored the core reason why the parishioners in St. Francis Xavier church in Owo were targeted.
Instead, he immediately sought to equate the atrocity with imagined attempts “to scapegoat pastoral peoples who are among the foremost victims of the consequences of climate change,” before claiming that food security issues had “brought us to a point of crisis that is now having internal and regional effects.”
True, deadly terrorist groups like Boko Haram and ISWAP draw support from nomadic herder communities like the Fulani people, some of whom have indeed been impacted by desertification and other problems.
Yet nobody for a second believes that climate change drives people to rake a church congregation with gunfire.
What happened in Owo was just the latest episode in a lengthy war waged against Nigeria’s Christians by Muslim militants, and our head of state cannot claim this was simply a careless response to a new and unexpected development.
Attacks on Nigerian Christians which generated international coverage in recent years included the bombings of churches on Christmas Day 2011, the kidnapping of the mostly Christian Chibok schoolgirls in 2014 and the recent videotaped execution of 20 Christian hostages.
The Open Doors charity estimates that more than 4,650 Nigerian Christians were killed because of their religion in 2021 – which meant that Nigeria accounted for nearly 80% of the world’s martyred Christians last year.
The comments from Higgins drew a sharp rebuke from the local bishop who said that to “make a connection between victims of terror and consequences of climate change is not only misleading but also exactly rubbing salt [in]to the injuries” of those who have suffered.
The President’s counterparts within Ireland’s political elite have repeatedly demonstrated a similar indifference to anti-Christian violence internationally.
Political discourse around Christianity in Ireland focuses on a (largely distorted) vision of a repressive past which the Irish people have recently escaped. In it, the Church is the persecutor, and the only way to right previous wrongs is to systematically eliminate all vestiges of religion from public life.
Aside from falsifying the historical record, isolating today’s believers and cutting Irish people off from devout generations who went before them, this mindset also makes it difficult for our politicians to acknowledge that hundreds of millions of Christians around the world are today being persecuted.
This manifests itself in strange ways. When a far-right extremist killed 50 Muslims in New Zealand in March 2019, the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar promptly condemned the attack, but a month later, it took public pressure from Catholic media outlets before Varadkar made a statement about the slaughter of more than 250 Sri Lankan Christians in Islamic suicide bombings.
In the same year, when asked about the Government’s stance on anti-Christian persecution in the Muslim world, the Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said that his Government preferred to express their concerns in a way that was “applicable to all minorities, rather than particular ones.”
Politicians in other European countries do not shy away from facing the facts, as when Angela Merkel publicly acknowledged that Christianity was the world’s most persecuted religion, or when the British government published an extensive review on the global persecution of Christians.
Far from being only a personal failing, Michael D. Higgins’s inability to see anti-Christian persecution for what it is is emblematic of the indifference of Ireland’s political elite.
That is why it is all the more important for Irish Catholics to engage on these issues, and to consider supporting groups like Aid to the Church in Need who work to highlight these problems and provide material assistance to beleaguered Christians.
Ireland’s humanitarian and missionary traditions have long been intertwined, and as the Irish Church becomes more multicultural (including a large contingent of Nigerian Catholics), there could be no better way of building a cohesive religious identity than by renewing these efforts now.
We can do little to change the mindset of our political leaders, but Irish Catholics could do much more to assist their fellow believers in countries where religious persecution is a constant threat to life and limb.