from Africa in Transition

Catholics Suspend National Activity In the Christian Association of Nigeria

January 28, 2013

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The Roman Catholic Church has suspended its participation in meetings at the national level of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). The Catholic bishops stated that “CAN is being dragged into partisan politics thereby compromising its ability to carry out its true role as conscience of the nation and the voice of the voiceless.” The current CAN president, Ayo Oritsejafor, has been an outspoken supporter of President Goodluck Jonathan and the governing Peoples Democratic Party. In reaction to the Catholic suspension of its participation, one CAN spokesman has said that they are “free to go.” He also accused them of “arrogance” and claimed they were angry because the presidency had moved to the Pentecostals.

Radical Nigerian Islamic groups, labeled Boko Haram, have been attacking Christian churches in northern Nigeria for the past few years. CAN has been a national Christian voice in responding to those attacks. While some CAN rhetoric can be fierce, Christian reaction thus far has been largely free of reprisals against Muslims, especially in the predominately Christian parts of the country. The Catholic suspension is bound to weaken CAN; they were one of the founding pillars of the organization.

The Roman Catholic Church is a powerhouse among Nigerian Christians. Its adherents number an estimated nineteen million, out of a population of perhaps 170 million. It is either the largest, or the second largest (after the Anglicans) Christian denomination in the country. There are three Nigerian cardinals, two of whom are under age eighty, and eligible to vote in the next papal election. Among other outspoken critics of the Nigerian political economy and human rights abuses have been John Onaiyekan, cardinal archbishop of Abuja and Matthew Kukah, the bishop of Sokoto.

CAN has been the most important Christian umbrella organization in Nigeria. Founded in 1976, it originally included the mainline Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church. Subsequently, it grew to include Pentecostal and "African" churches. Until recently, its leadership has been dominated by the mainstream Protestants and the Catholics. However, its current president, Ayo Oritsejafor, senior pastor of the Word of Life Bible Church, comes from the Pentecostal tradition; the vice president, Archbishop Daniel Okoh, is president of the Organization of African Institutional Churches, the umbrella of “African churches.” CAN presidential elections are frequently contested. Oritsejafor defeated Archbishop Onaiyekan for the presidency in the last elections, in 2010. Onaiyekan in turn had defeated the Anglican primate in the election previous. Oritsejafor has been criticized for a lavish personal lifestyle, including the use of a private jet, a present from anonymous donors.