When the terrorist group attacked his diocese, a Nigerian bishop launched a spiritual fightback. Dan Hitchens meets him
“The reason I’m sitting here before you,” Bishop Oliver Doeme tells me mid-interview, “is the grace of God.” For a moment I think this is a pious generalisation about divine providence. But that’s not what Bishop Doeme means. He means that, by rights, he shouldn’t really be alive.
The bishop’s diocese is Maiduguri in Nigeria – the epicentre of terrorism in the country. Nigeria is where Boko Haram is most active. Founded in 2002, the Islamist group claims affiliation with ISIS, and is no less demonic in its aims and methods. Among its chief aims is to kill as many Christians and to blow up as many churches as possible. Bishop Doeme is an obvious target.
The story of Maiduguri’s Catholics is one of terrible suffering. “To experience what we are going through is enough martyrdom,” says Bishop Doeme. But it is also something else: a story of supernatural intervention, and of the immediate power of prayer. For Boko Haram has run into trouble – partly thanks to a successful campaign by the Nigerian military, but also, it seems, for more supernatural reasons.
In 2014, Bishop Doeme had a vision while praying before the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus appeared to him, and handed the bishop a sword – which, as soon as he received it, turned into a rosary. Jesus then repeated the words: “Boko Haram is gone.” Bishop Doeme decided at once that this was an invitation to spread devotion to the rosary. So he began doing just that.
Maiduguri had always been a Marian diocese – when Bishop Doeme was installed in 2009, at the age of 48, he consecrated the diocese to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a consecration which has been repeated every year.
But after the vision, the bishop wrote a pastoral letter encouraging the daily saying of the rosary – and especially, rosary processions – in families, schools and parishes. At his own residence there is a rosary procession every evening; if he isn’t there, his secretary or someone else will lead it. Every Saturday, meanwhile, Mass is offered throughout the diocese in honour of Our Lady.
Why does Bishop Doeme think Jesus appeared in 2014? “It happened that way not because of me,” he says. “I am just a poor sinner … It was about Jesus and his Mother, and his suffering people, his suffering children. It happened at the climax of the suffering of our people… 2014 will never be forgotten by our people.”
That was when Boko Haram’s attacks were at their most terrible. In that year they killed more than 6,000 people; the 276 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok were abducted (218 are still missing); over 80,000 Catholics were displaced; 25 priests (half those in the diocese), 45 nuns and 200 catechists and parish workers had to flee.
“Churches were razed down,” the bishop remembers, “schools were razed down, hospitals were razed down. So our people were devastated, our people were traumatised. And the Lord came in order to console his people, [to show] that his Mother is there for us.”
The vision encouraged Maiduguri’s Catholics to believe “that the rosary would ultimately give us victory over this evil. Boko Haram is evil. ISIS is evil. So as long as we go to a place with his Mother, especially by praying the rosary, which is the most pronounced form of Marian devotion, we will be victorious.”
Although it is too early to declare victory, Boko Haram has suffered defeat after defeat since the people of Maiduguri stepped up their Marian devotion. In September 2015, the Nigerian military reported that the terrorists were “completely in disarray”, and that they were no longer capable of holding territory.
A few months later, President Muhammadu Buhari announced that Boko Haram had been “technically defeated”. Bishop Doeme says the terrorists have been driven into the forests, and “will soon fizzle out, mostly because of the prayers of the people”.
The diocese’s biggest problem now isn’t terrorist violence; it’s recovering from the devastation of the last couple of years. “Boko Haram have swept our communities of anything that belonged to our people, the bishop says. So their animals have gone, their crops have gone, their houses have been destroyed, their vehicles have gone. It is a very, very serious situation.”
The UN is doing a lot to restore the area. Aid to the Church in Need and Missio have provided indispensable help. Nevertheless, the poverty and upheaval are hard to deal with. “But the wonderful thing is that the faith of the people is unshakeable. Even though over 500 Catholics have been killed, people are still ready to lay down their lives to serve their Master.”
And there is a lesson for us in the West, says Bishop Doeme: “Suffering can really bring people closer to God.” Western comfort “has led our brothers and sisters to deviate from the faith”, to forget that God must be obeyed. “Sin must be called sin. Abortion must be called abortion. Gay marriage must be called gay marriage,” he says.
But the bishop hopes that the Church in the West “will resurrect” – not least because of all the African clergy who have come to us. One American diocese alone has four of Bishop Doeme’s priests. It’s payback time, he says: “We were evangelised by them, and now it is our turn to come and evangelise you.”
This article first appeared in the October 7 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.