Yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI announced the appointment of Abuja Archbishop John Onaiyekan and five others as cardinals. Archbishop Onaiyekan is known for his peace and reconciliation work across the increasingly bitter Christian/Muslim divide. One of his close collaborators is the Sultan of Sokoto, Nigeria’s premier traditional Muslim ruler. The Archbishop and Sultan were short-listed this year for the Nobel Peace Prize. Archbishop Onaiyekan was also Pax Christi International’s Peace Laureate for 2012. He is a strong advocate for justice for the poor and a sharp critic of Nigeria’s political economy. With a lively sense of humor, he is a skilled debater–with Ann Widdencomb, he took on Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry on the BBC.
In parts of the North and Middle Belt, Nigeria is tearing itself apart through murderous conflict, which reflects and generates hostility and suspicion in a negative feedback loop, between Christians and Muslims. Boko Haram, a radical Islamist organization, has bombed churches, and Human Rights Watch has documented instances of members forcing Christians to convert to Islam. In response, many Christian leaders have resorted to fierce anti-Muslim rhetoric and Christian mobs often target and kill Muslims, notably in the aftermath of the 2011 presidential elections. In this environment, Pope Benedict’s appointment of Archbishop Onaiyekan is an important gesture of support for those who, in very difficult circumstances, are working for peace. Archbishop Onaiyekan has said that he will remain in Nigeria as Cardinal Archbishop of Abuja.
The center of the Roman Catholic Church’s membership has shifted dramatically from Europe and North America to the developing world over the past century. Christianity has grown rapidly in Nigeria. It was perhaps 2 percent of the population in 1900. As recently as 1960 its adherents were no more than 30 percent. Now, it is likely that Christians make up slightly over 50 percent of the population. Nigerian Catholics claim nineteen million adherents, which makes it the largest Christian denomination in the country. Nigeria probably also has more Catholics than any other African country.
Archbishop Onaiyekan, sixty-eight, has been a bishop for almost thirty years. As a young student, his religious studies in Rome were funded by the Premier of the old Northern Nigeria Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello; a Muslim.
Since independence, Nigeria has had three cardinals. Dominic Ekandem, who died in 1995; Francis Arinze, an expert on Christian/Muslim dialogue who spent most of his professional life in Rome, and is now retired; and Anthony Okogie, also retired, who was the Archbishop of Lagos.