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ICC NOTE: Kontagora is a city in North Nigeria, in the state of Niger, where the Islamic law is in fact the law of the land. As Christianity grows in this particular area, the obstacles in regards to radical Islamic violence and opposition will grow as well, as the article well reflects.

Africa ‘s star rising

Nigeria offers a portrait of steady Catholic growth on the continent — even producing a surplus of priests, some of whom end up here. Conflicts with Islam are a worry.

By Andrew Maykuth

Inquirer Staff Writer

KONTAGORA, Nigeria – Dressed in holiday finery, 500 Nigerian Catholics gathered on Palm Sunday last year at St. Michael’s Cathedral, the central church in a traditionally Islamic corner of Africa ‘s most populous nation.

In much of the world, Catholics commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with a public parade. But in Kontagora, the faithful confined their procession inside the compound’s 10-foot walls out of respect for – or fear of – the city’s Muslim majority.

There was good reason to be wary about public exhibitions of Christian faith. Kontagora is a principal city in Niger state, one of several Nigerian jurisdictions in which Islamic law has been decreed. In a country where Christianity and Islam meet like great tectonic plates, Kontagora lies directly on the fault line.

Occasionally the tension erupts, as it did a little more than three months ago amid worldwide protests over cartoons depicting Muhammad.

On Feb. 23, Muslim gangs forced their way through St. Michael’s steel gates. Igniting tires and gasoline, they burned the cathedral and destroyed the priests’ residence. One parishioner fled to a nearby Protestant church, where he died when it was burned. Nine churches were attacked in Kontagora that night, and 10 people killed.

The bloody week in Nigeria – more than 120 Christians and Muslims died in protests, reprisals and counter-reprisals – is only a sample of the sectarian conflict that underlies this oil-rich nation of 132 million, cobbled together by British colonialists from rival ethnic groups and perpetually in danger of splitting apart.

Despite its instability, Nigeria and much of Africa represent a growth opportunity for major religions because a substantial number of people still are animists, with ancient tribal beliefs in spirits and demons. Not only Roman Catholicism but most Protestant denominations are here, aggressively vying for Nigeria ‘s unclaimed souls. Islamic radicals have also taken aim at the country; Osama bin Laden declared it “ripe for liberation.”

In Nigeria , which dominates West Africa economically and politically, the church is growing at 4.7 percent per year, one of the fastest rates in the world.

Catholicism isn’t the only religion flourishing here. The Anglicans claim 19 million Nigerian members, about the same as the Catholics. In the southern lowlands, where most Christians live, roadsides are cluttered with formal and informal houses of worship, including many new Pentecostal churches.

Business owners openly proclaim their faith: Divine Grace Filling Station, Love of God Photos & Video Studio.

“It’s almost like a miracle of grace,” said Archbishop John Onaiyekan, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria and head of the Archdiocese of Abuja, the capital.

Although Catholic clerics say their evangelistic efforts in Nigeria ‘s hinterlands are aimed at animists, in truth many converts are Muslims. Partly for self-protection, the clerics do not advertise Islamic conversions. Where sharia law is enforced, Muslims face reprisals and even death for leaving the faith.

But it’s clear that Christians measure their progress in comparison to Islam, which migrated across the Sahara in the Middle Ages and set deep roots in what is now northern Nigeria .

“Islam had been here for over 1,000 years,” said Onaiyekan. “Christianity came here in the last 100 years. Now Islam and Christians are about equal” – 66 million and 53 million, as estimated by the CIA.

A Nigerian Islamic leader said Christianity is compatible with Islam, as long as followers of the former do not insult Islam or Muhammad.

“We don’t have a religious crisis in Nigeria ,” said Amin Igwegbe, director of administration for the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs of Nigeria, and a convert from Catholicism at age 12. “What we have is a political crisis, an ethnic crisis, and a tribal crisis. Politicians just use religion as a cover-up.

The Catholic Church operates in two distinctly different spheres in Nigeria .

Kontagora is a vicariate, twice the size of New Jersey , that was established 10 years ago with the aim that Irish missionaries would develop it into a full-fledged diocese. In places such as this, where most of the clergy are dispatched from the Society of African Missions, the church fits the Western stereotype of outreach: a patriarchy led by white priests and nuns evangelizing an underdeveloped population, often in the face of hostility.

But such outposts in northern Nigeria serve only a tiny minority of the country’s Catholics.

Nigerians say spiritual forces also are at play, that the desire to serve is an expression of the strength of their faith.

“The concept of God is embedded in our culture,” said the Rev. John Okoye, Bigard’s former rector. “It’s in the air we breathe.”

“Everything is under control of the Muslims,” said Saliu, 41, the first local priest ordained in the vicariate.

The clerics must cover a vast territory, so the outstations often rely on catechists to conduct the services.

“There’s a lot we can learn from these people,” said Bishop Timothy J. Carroll, 66, a native of Cork , Ireland . He visited Ganawa to celebrate Mass and receive offerings consisting of a few wads of small currency or crops such as yams and peanuts.

“The lay ministry is very important,” he said. “If the priest comes or not, the church goes on. That’s the way it should be.”

Perhaps the modern church’s most controversial mission is its peace and justice work – teaching Nigerians to confront local authorities over human-rights violations, from property confiscations to false arrests. For the full article…