Posted by: Fr Chris | April 9, 2020

Eucharist, Priesthood, and Me

Today is Holy Thursday – we commemorate two major Sacraments: the Most Holy Eucharist, instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper, and priesthood. No priests = No Holy Communion.

We live now in a time where the vast majority of Catholics are cut off from the Eucharist, on this the day on which it was first created by Christ. For many, this is the first time in their lives that churches were closed, and that Mass/ Divine Liturgy disappeared. Early Christians risked their lives to attend Sunday Mass/ Liturgy in the Roman and Persian Empires when persecutions raged. They told their persecutors that they could not live without the Holy Eucharist. Deacons and designated laity would carry the Holy Eucharist to their homes so that they could partake of It during the week, or deliver It to the sick and prisoners. According to Pope Damasus, Saint Tarcisius was killed by pagans in the last great persecution while carrying Holy Communion – he died rather than give up that most precious treasure, and was buried in the Roman catacombs.

Tarsitius -figure in the altar of the church of S_ Lorenzo fuori le mura in Rome

St Tarcisius, still holding the Eucharist in Its container 

When we say that the Church has gone into the catacombs, it is a reference to the belief that the Roman Christians worshipped in the underground cemeteries that lie beneath Rome’s streets. Those of us in North America and Western Europe have lived with access to Holy Communion whenever we want. And pretty much everyone who is at a Mass/ Liturgy will receive Communion, even though many don’t believe it is the Body and Blood of Christ but just a symbol. For those who thought it was just a nice thing to do and for those who knew that receiving Communion means receiving Christ Himself, being deprived of this Sacrament is a great sorrow. And maybe those who thought it’s just a symbol now realize after being deprived of It, that there is indeed something more.

When Jesus said, Eat, this is My Body, the word He used was basar. That means he said to the astonished disciples: Eat of this, My entire Personhood, Everything that I AM. Some symbol! Christ gives us not only His Body, but all that He Is, Divine and Human, together in one unique Person. The apostles must have been stunned. Now they understood His teaching from John’s Gospel, chapter 6.

And His Blood? That is the chalice sealing the new covenant with us. The Old Covenant was sealed in the blood of the animals sacrificed by Abram, on the day that God called him Abraham. Now it is sealed in Jesus’ Blood, the Blood on the Crucifix, the Blood He received from the Virgin Mary, the Blood that gushed out from His pierced Heart when the centurion tore open His side with a lance. This holy Blood, this Most Precious Blood, is the life-giving Blood of the Lord.

mass rocks | Roaringwater Journal

Guards come to warn the priest and congregation during Penal Times in Ireland of approaching soldiers

English and Welsh Catholics were persecuted for centuries: the Mass was banned, devotions forbidden, relics and statues burned. Yet when emancipation came in 1850 there was a flourishing Catholic community still centered on the Mass. The same held true for Scottish Catholics in the  Highlands, and the Irish suffering under the Penal Laws.

Fr John's Trip to Vietnam: La Vang February 18, 2011

Our Lady consoles Vietnamese Catholics at La Vang, 1798

Japanese Catholics lived without a priesthood or Eucharist for 200 years, but kept the Faith intact. Catholics scattered around the USSR might have Holy Communion only a couple of times a year, but remained firm in their Faith. Prisoners in the Soviet Gulag doing forced labor would fast all day long so as to receive a tiny piece of the Consecrated Bread from a priest-prisoner in the evening, Bread consecrated when the priest offered Mass lying flat on his bunk, or in a corner of a mine lit by one lone candle. The Catholics of China suffered imprisonment, slave labor, torture and exile, but did not give up. They may very well be going that route once again. People in all of these places took enormous risks in sheltering a priest, but they did so out of hunger for Jesus.

Jānis Mendriks - Wikipedia

Grave of Father Janis Mendriks, killed at Vorkuta in 1953 while ministering to Gulag prisoners

Perhaps this forced abstinence will help people to understand the power of what happens on Catholic and Orthodox altars. I hope so – most American Catholics don’t go to church regularly, and many of those who do, fail to accept that this is JESUS HIMSELF Who descends into the gifts on every altar.

An Icon of the Kingdom of God: The Integrated Expression of all the Liturgical Arts – Part 12 ...

He pours out Himself constantly, be it pope, patriarch, or parish priest who recites those words: Take, eat This is My Body; Drink of this, all of you. Christ Jesus WANTS us. Christ DESIRES us. Christ wishes to COME and LIVE within us.

May our hunger for Him increase, our love for Him never die, our connection to His Church remain firm, no matter what. And may this pandemic be brought to an end, so that those who have been patiently waiting for Him will have this opportunity once again.


Posted by: Fr Chris | April 4, 2020

Lazarus Saturday

Jericho | Pilgrim Pat

Today we commemorate Jesus’ saving action in one of His most impressive displays of divine power, the raising of a dead man after four days in the tomb. This obviously foreshadows Christ’s Resurrection after three days in His tomb. The raising of Lazarus happens right before Palm Sunday, when Jesus enters the holy city riding a donkey.


IcSMML - Sts. Mary, Martha and Lazarus Orthodox Icon - St Joseph School for Boys Bookstore

Often we emphasize Christ’s power. Today I want to point out something different. We all know Mary and Martha from the famous episode in which Martha is “busy with all the details of hospitality” while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, taking in His words. In that episode, Mary is praised by Jesus for “taking the better part,” that is, being attentive to the words coming from the mouth of Him Who is the Eternal Word.

11 best Heilige Martha / Icons images on Pinterest | Catholic saints, Religious icons and Saint ...

But notice today that it is Martha who can make the great leap of faith! She praises Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah, the true Lord of lords. Mary on the other hand reproaches Jesus: had You been here, my brother would not have died. So who listened best on that day in Bethany? Mary sitting at His feet, or Martha going in and out of the kitchen?

How well do I listen to these ancient stories? Do I apply their message to my own life? Or do I just read through them to finish them? Martha prostrates before Jesus, worshipping Him. She knows He is God, even in her mourning. She recognizes Who He is. 

Who do I say Jesus is? In this time of epidemics, death tolls, deciding in hospitals who will live and die, where is God? He is here, always next to us, always speaking to us, and we remain valuable and precious in His sight.

Sheol and Lent – The Catholic Physicist

And Lazarus? His soul had spent four days in Sheol, announcing to the all the souls of the just, from the time of  Adam and Eve down to his own day, that the Messiah was very close, and that their time of waiting was coming to an end. Soon, soon, these souls waitig for thousands of years, would be able to enter into the presence of Almighty God.

Am I ready to do so? Am I ready to die? One thing about epidemics – they force us to think the hard thoughts. By all means, have a will and last testament and funeral plans drawn up. But above all, let us be ready for Christ tomorrow, in Holy Week, and on  Pascha. Let us walk with Him, and remember that He walks with us always.


Byzantine Rite

Roman Rite


Death of Saint Joseph 

I pray regularly to Saint Joseph to intercede with God to console the dying, as he died in the arms of Jesus and Mary, and that I have the grace of a good and holy death, with the Sacraments. In this pandemic, many Catholics are dying without those Sacraments, and all are dying alone. In fact, all over the world people die every day, so praying for those souls is a very important thing to do! Now though we have this unique situation of a world-wide epidemic where Catholics in particular die unattended by a priest.

This article is in reference to this story from March 21 in Italy by Sky News.

Those in intensive care due to the virus die alone – no one can come in and say goodbye, no one is allowed to sit and hold their hands. They die alone as their lungs give out.

An Irish priest asks that people spiritually adopt the dying, referencing an event from the life of St Faustina – worth reading the whole article just for that event – and praying for these souls.

And given the state of western society in particular, a lot of people are facing death with a minimum or religious knowledge, or have no knowledge of God’s mercy, and have no clue as to how to prepare spiritually for death. Other people are not Christian, but even so they are also definitely in need of God’s loving mercy. I have always thought that facing death with no religion whatsoever, no hope in anything beyond this life, must be especially difficult. Here is the story with the prayers:

Even if this does not meet w/ your spirituality – consider sharing it with others please.

1000+ images about Divine Mercy on Pinterest | Divine mercy, Saint faustina and The divine


Posted by: Fr Chris | March 17, 2020

Prayer During an Epidemic



Lord Jesus,

Hear our pleas, our good shepherd and divine physician. We implore your mercy in the wake of an outbreak of serious illness and disease.

Guide our efforts to prevent contagion and make preparations to care for those most vulnerable. Assist all professionals and volunteers who work to eradicate the epidemic now spreading. May our actions be marked by your steadfast love and selfless service and never by panic or fear.

Bestow your comfort and healing to the sick, sustain and strengthen them by your grace. May they know your closeness as they carry the cross of illness.

And may all you have called from this life come to worship you eternally with all the saints as you grant consolation and peace to their mourners. Amen.

Holy Mary, Health of the Sick, pray for us.

St. Joseph, Hope of the Sick, pray for us.

St. Rocco, protector against epidemics, pray for us.


You can download a prayer card here:

Posted by: Fr Chris | March 13, 2020

Source for Catholic Church & Coronavirus News

I am out of commission with a respiratory bug – fortunately NOT the coronavirus.

However it is continuing to spread in countries. Our Sunday Visitor has this website which they will keep updated with Church news and dealing with the pandemic.

Image result for rome coronavirus

A Sister walks past the barricades of Saint Peter’s Square

I find it mind-boggling that certain people are lauding bishops or parishes that do not cancel services in areas that are infected. The Catholic Church suspended public celebrations of the Mass during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 (which did not originate in Spain, but Kansas). Churches closed in other epidemics. In Italy during epidemics, outdoor Masses were offered so people could worship from their homes, but Holy Communion was not distributed. When a German-American priest in Cincinnati insisted on offering public Masses after the state ordered churches closed, it was Church officials who stepped in and told him to stop as it was dangerous.

Image result for catholic church in spanish flu 1918

1918 poster in Saint Louis against spreading the Spanish Influenza 

While we all long for the reception of Jesus Christ’s Body and Blood, we are not meant to put people at risk in crowded churches where an infection like mine can travel quickly, let alone the coronavirus which is apparently transmitted easily.  Nobody is immune to this virus, people 60 and up or people with other health issues (like me) are especially vulnerable, and nobody wants to get sick. Sure, for healthy people it is like a bad flu, but for those at risk – and that’s quite a good portion of the populace – getting sick with this can lead to death or a prolonged illness with as yet unknown long-term results.

Social distancing and closing areas frequented by large groups of people saved the city of Saint Louis in the 1918 pandemic. While most cities buried thousands of citizens, Saint Louis had only 1,703 deaths. The same should hold true for us today we hope. Above all, pray to God for relief for the sick, and that cooler heads will prevail – after all, who on earth in America needs five flats of bottled water and a ton of toilet paper?

Instead of hoarding supplies, Christians should be praying for others, and offering to provide help with food, caring for children out of school, and shopping for those who can’t go out easily.  And if we care for our neighbor as Christ taught us, we should get the flu shot instead of playing Russian Roulette with our own health and that of those around us – 80,000 people die every year from the flu, which is so unnecessary!

File:Deursen, Saint Roch, par M. Heymans, 1903.jpg

Saint Roch, patron against plagues, pray for us!


Posted by: Fr Chris | February 22, 2020

Saint Leo the Great and our Springtime Season

#452 – A History of the Catholic Church – The Tome of Leo

Leo the Great is perhaps best remembered today as the Bishop of Rome who turned back the hordes of Attila the Hun. But he was much more than a successful diplomat: his famous Tome of Leo settled a major battle as to exactly Who Jesus Christ is: a Unique Person with equal divine and human natures united in the One Son of God, Son of Mary. In this essay, he calls us to awareness for conversion in all of our behavior. 

On Monday, February 24, Byzantine Catholics in much of the world begin the penitential season of Great Lent. Lent itself is from an Old English word meaning the spring season. In the northern half of the world, Lent inevitably comes during the transition from winter and its dormant plants to the burst of life of late spring.

Dear friends, at every moment the earth is full of the mercy
of God, and nature itself is a lesson for all the faithful in
the worship of God. The heavens, the sea and all that is in
them bear witness to the omnipotence of their Creator, and
the marvelous beauty of the elements as they obey him
demands from the intelligent creation a fitting expression
of its gratitude.

But with the return of that season marked out in a
special way by the mystery of our redemption, and of the
days that lead up to the paschal feast, we are summoned
more urgently to prepare ourselves by a purification of

The special note of the paschal feast is this: the
whole Church rejoices in the forgiveness of sins. It rejoices
in the forgiveness not only of those who are then reborn in
holy baptism but also of those who are already numbered
among God’s adopted children.

Initially, men are made new by the rebirth of
baptism. Yet there is still required a daily renewal to repair
the shortcomings of our mortal nature, and whatever
degree of progress has been made there is no one who
should not be more advanced. All must therefore strive to
ensure that on the day of redemption no one may be found
in the sins of his former life.


Dear friends, what the Christian should be doing at
all times should be done now with greater care and
devotion, so that the Lenten fast enjoined by the apostles
may be fulfilled, not simply by abstinence from food but
above all by the renunciation of sin.

There is no more profitable practice as a
companion to holy and spiritual fasting than that of
almsgiving. This embraces under the single name of mercy
many excellent works of devotion, so that the good
intentions of the faithful may be of equal value, even
where their means are not. The love that we owe both God
and man is always free from any obstacle that would
prevent us from having a good intention. The angels sang:
Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on
earth. The person who shows love and compassion to those
in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue
of good will, but also with the gift of peace.

The works of mercy are innumerable. Their very
variety brings this advantage to those who are true
Christians, that in the matter of almsgiving not only the
rich and affluent but also those of average means and the
poor are able to play their part. Those who are unequal in
their capacity to give can be equal in the love within their

Math Hombre

Posted by: Fr Chris | February 9, 2020

Moving into Great Lent

Crucifix saved in 1963 to be refurbished

Firemen rescue the crucifix from the burning church of Our Lady of Sorrows in Detroit, 1963 

In the photograph above, the firemen are carrying Christ Crucified. When He was nailed to the Cross, Jesus was nailed with our sins. When He was lifted up, He invited all of us to Him. Embracing the Cross is frightening, especially when it is not just a theory but very real. These firemen saved Jesus Crucified. Jesus Crucified saves us — but only if we want to be saved. To get to Paradise, to get to union with God, to embrace the Holy Trinity through deification/ theosis here on earth, requires going through the Cross to the glory on the other side. There is no way to avoid it.

I have been battling medical issues all my life. I had to move out to the Southwest in 1982 for medical reasons, leaving everyone and everything familiar behind. I was much more comfortable riding the D train in New York City or touring Buffalo on my bicycle than moving to a land of saguaro cactus. In 1985 I was transferred “for a couple years” to Albuquerque. I didn’t know where it was, much less how to spell it. Here I am in 2020, having spent most of my priesthood and over half of my life in New Mexico. This parish was probably ready to close under the weight of a huge debt and only forty people left to worship here. Yet here it is, still going, with over 100 souls, no debt, and good prospects.

There are so many people in my life who I would never, ever have met had I not moved here. There is so much that has happened to me since coming out West – some of it pretty bad, a lot of it pretty good. This move was part of my Cross. I had to accept it or reject it. I accepted it, and good things have resulted.

The Cross can be a person, it can be a disease, it can be a tough situation at school, work or in a neighborhood. We know it when it comes – the challenge always is, will I ask Jesus to strengthen me in approaching it, or will I turn away and do the opposite?

Will I be like Job’s wife: Curse God and die – probably the least helpful line in all of Scripture! Or will I be willing to go into it and struggle through WITH THE HELP OF CHRIST CRUCIFIED? 

Lent is close at hand, the ultimate time for Christians to reflect on who they are in relation to God, the place given to God in our lives, and the faults we have that need to be overcome in order to be  fully redeemed. If I am to die tonight, what are the things that will keep me out of heaven? Now, do I like those things so much that I’d rather forfeit Heaven than give them up? Or am I ready to let go of them?

Christ will carry us. Our guardian angel will carry us. We have to be willing to crucify the sinful actions/ habits that are holding us back from Paradise, or Lent is worthless. All the fasting and abstinence in the world is useless unless it is done so as to free ourselves from sin and become both more charitable to others around us and desire to get closer to God.

Here are some Lenten Reading Sources:  A variety of good books: Back to the Garden, a new book by Father Jack Custer on Isaiah, Cappuccino with Christ, Carrying Your Cross with Christ.   Journey Through the Great Fast – Lenten daily meditations using the Byzantine Rite readings  One of the great spiritual classics, The Face of God Unfinished Business on the Road to Pascha another book of daily meditations.  The Lenten Spring, a wonderful book for the forty days.  Great Lent, possibly the best book ever on the season and services of Lent, by the great Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann. This has been a mainstay for me since seminary days.

We have two weeks left until Great Lent. May it be a season not only of penance, but of renewal. We cannot have Easter Sunday, Pascha, without Good Friday. But unlike Jesus, we do not have to go to the Cross alone. He will escort us, guide us, lead us, strengthen us, as we pass through the cross into glory.

Posted by: Fr Chris | December 31, 2019

New Year’s Eve: Am I thankful? And for what?

1 Timothy 2:1-6    Luke 4:16-22

The Sabbath Day: Holy Day or Holiday? - Mormon Voice

The last words of the Gospel today are, They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  And of course, it is not Joseph’s son. Jesus is Joseph’s legal son, but not his biological son. This alone shows how ordinary the life of the Holy Family was in Nazareth. They’ve heard of his deeds elsewhere and now wonder what’s coming to them in His hometown. If they were open to it, it would have been the celebration of God’s mercy and power in their midst. But they weren’t open to this at all – they all thought they knew who Jesus was, but they didn’t.

The epistle is classic Pauline – he emphasizes that all Christians want is the ability to live quietly, but in the Roman Empire that would really be impossible.

For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people But everyone in the empire except Jews had to be willing to acknowledge the ruling emperor as a god, as the intercessor for the empire with the whole pantheon of pagan gods and goddesses. Instead, we have one God, and one Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have been saved.

Affirming Faith - Extra

We have a duty to pray for governments – in Europe they prayed for the anointed emperors and kings,  in republics we pray for the elected rulers and also all the civil servants who keep government running and for those in the armed forces. But the duty is to pray FOR them, not to exalt them on high. No mortal man or woman can take the place of God. The Divine Liturgy reflects Paul’s admonition, since we pray repeatedly for our government and military. Why do we pray for them?

We are asking God’s mercy upon them so that they will do the right thing at all times, and so that the Church will be allowed to live in peace and be able to proclaim its message, that God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. We live in a weird time where information is available at the click of a computer mouse, but now there are false stories, exaggerations, outright lies competing for the truth. To do research on the internet, you have to dig constantly, and a lot of people would rather believe the latest inflammatory story that fits their own world view, rather than be challenged to examine that world view.

Nate's Nonsense: The Missing Years of Jesus

Jesus and Saint Joseph in Nazareth 

Jesus could not work many miracles in Nazareth because most of the people did not believe in Him. They were too focused on His ordinary life with Our Lady and Saint Joseph, and could not believe that He was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies. Ironically, after Pentecost Nazareth became a stronghold of orthodox faith in Jesus Christ. When the Christians of Palestine were torn apart by heresies, they went to Nazareth to get their answers as to just who Jesus was. The descendants of His relatives and neighbors were so filled with the Holy Spirit that they could always give the right answer to those asking questions.

Just as we have to dig through the internet, we have to dig through Scripture and Church writings to get our answers. We have to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and have confidence in the authentic magisterium of the Church.

Too often in 2019 people have been angry, and people are much too prone to believing what they want to believe, not facts. People are much too willing to put all their trust and confidence in politicians, even though Psalm 143 warns us, put not your trust in princes in whom there is no help. Instead Psalm 124 says put your trust in the Lord who made heaven and earth.

Icon of The Creation of the Stars - (11T08) - Uncut Mountain Supply

And instead of saying what a lousy year 2019 was, let’s look more at thanking God we are still here, we belong to the Church entrusted with the fullness of God’s revelation despite all the sins of its members and leaders, we are still able to receive the holy mysteries of penance and Holy Communion, we have a very good healthy parish, and we are still living in a country that is wonderful despite all its problems.

It is up to us to make the most of 2020, by being people of prayer, people of conversion, people who love others in the name of God, people who are truly thankful to the Lord for all his blessings. Then we will be open to the Holy Spirit, then we will be able to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to those around us, then we will be a people on fire for salvation and for truth. Then we will be a people who are thankful, grateful, and happy. There is always going to be bad news, there are always going to be sinful people – including all of us here – and there are always going to be political messes in government and church alike.

LOVE IN THE RUINS: January 2011

Saint John Paul II wrote: Let us put our hope in Jesus, the Name of salvation given to men and women of every language and race. Confessing His Name, let us walk trustfully toward the future, certain that we will not be disappointed if we trust in the Holy Name of Jesus. The key to a happy life in 2020 is this: will I set aside time for prayer and union with God, as Jesus Himself did? Will I receive Holy Communion aware that it is Jesus Christ rejoicing to come inside of me? Will I receive absolution in confession grateful that God has shown His mercy to me? Will I be willing to dig for truth, to learn about the truth? Will I be brave enough to encourage others to come to church with me, despite the failures of Catholic bishops and priests?

Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Indeed, it is completely fulfilled in our hearing every day of our lives, but only if we intend to make God and His Sacraments the center of our lives, on which everything else that we do is based.

May we be thankful to God for what we have, and may we all have a year of blessings in 2020.

~ Global Empower Media ~ Uniting Nations in Peace: Shroud of Turin, Prince of Peace I AM Akiane ...

Posted by: Fr Chris | December 28, 2019

Mark your calendars: Three Talks in Rio Rancho in 2020

All these are at 7 pm at Saint Thomas Aquinas Church, in their hall

All in the family: Vatican book focuses on Eastern Catholic churches

Jan 20 – Introduction to the Eastern Catholics

Did you know that the Catholic Church is actually a family of Churches, all entrusted to the guidance of the Pope? The large family of Eastern Churches has a rich legacy of art, prayer, worship. The Eastern Catholic Churches are those Eastern Christians who have united with the Holy See of Rome out of conviction that Catholicism has the fullness of revelation. To adhere to these Unions has often required heroic determination, as these people have experienced fierce persecution by opponents and frequent misunderstandings by Roman Catholics. Join  us as we present Father Christopher Zugger, from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Byzantine Catholic Church as we begin a journey of exploration of fellow Catholics of whom we know all too little. This talk will give an overview of the formation of these Churches, the challenges to their union with Rome, and some of the brave witnesses who gave up everything so as to remain Catholics.

AtonementOnline: St. Sharbel Makhluf

Jan 27 Spirituality of Catholic East

Did you know that the Hail, Holy Queen which concludes the Rosary is actually an Eastern Christian prayer from the 600s? Have you ever heard of the Jesus Prayer? Each of the Eastern Christian families – Armenian, Byzantine, Coptic, and Syriac – have treasures of prayer and different approaches to God. In this talk,  Father Christopher Zugger, from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Byzantine Catholic Church will give us a taste of these prayers and customs from throughout the church year. We will meet famous saints in their writings such as Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, and lesser known but very important writers like Gregory of Narek and Ephrem the Syrian. The talk will include a presentation on how icons are made and the messages that they contain.

Fear Not Little Flock: Is the Jesus Prayer 'Vain Repetition?' -a guest post from Eastern ...

Feb 3 Worship and Liturgy of the Eastern Catholics

 There is an ancient story that when the ambassadors of Saint Vladimir the Great attended their first Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite, they told their prince that the experience was so awesome that they no longer knew if they were still on earth or had been lifted up into heaven. Eastern Christian worship is designed to affect all of our senses so as to truly lift up our hearts to God.  Father Christopher Zugger, from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Byzantine Catholic Church will go over some of the prayers, architecture, and art of the Eastern Churches, with a display of some treasures from the parish and explain how they are used. Did you know that not all Catholics use flat hosts? Or that Eastern liturgies always include Our Blessed Mother in the prayers? Or that the fact that we use English and Spanish in the Roman rite today is due to centuries of examples by the Eastern Catholics? Come and get a taste of heaven in our last presentation on the Catholic East.

Posted by: Fr Chris | December 27, 2019

The New War Against Africa’s Christians

Fulani raiders ‘are Islamic extremists of a new stripe, more or less linked with Boko Haram,’ but present throughout Nigeria.

Bernard-Henri Lévy speaks to Fulani men in Nigeria. PHOTO: GILLES HERTZOG

Lagos, Nigeria

A slow-motion war is under way in Africa’s most populous country. It’s a massacre of Christians, massive in scale and horrific in brutality. And the world has hardly noticed.

A Nigerian Pentecostal Christian, director of a nongovernmental organization that works for mutual understanding between Nigeria’s Christians and Muslims, alerted me to it. “Have you heard of the Fulani?” he asked at our first meeting, in Paris, speaking the flawless, melodious English of the Nigerian elite. The Fulani are an ethnic group, generally described as shepherds from mostly Muslim Northern Nigeria, forced by climate change to move with their herds toward the more temperate Christian South. They number 14 million to 15 million in a nation of 191 million.

Among them is a violent element. “They are Islamic extremists of a new stripe,” the NGO director said, “more or less linked with Boko Haram,” the sect that became infamous for the 2014 kidnapping of 276 Christian girls in the state of Borno. “I beg you,” he said, “come and see for yourself.” Knowing of Boko Haram but nothing of the Fulani, I accept.

The 2019 Global Terrorism Index estimates that Fulani extremists have become deadlier than Boko Haram and accounted for the majority of the country’s 2,040 documented terrorist fatalities in 2018. To learn more about them, I travel to Godogodo, in the center of the country, where I meet a beautiful woman named Jumai Victor, 28. On July 15, she says, Fulani extremists stormed into her village on long-saddle motorcycles, three to a bike, shouting “Allahu Akbar!” They torched houses and killed her four children before her eyes.

When her turn came and they noticed she was pregnant, a discussion ensued. Some didn’t want to see her belly slit, so they compromised by cutting up and amputating her left arm with a machete. She speaks quickly and emotionlessly, staring into space as if she lost her face along with her arm. The village chief, translating for her, chokes up. Tears stream down his cheeks when she finishes her account.

I venture north to Adnan, where Lyndia David, 34, tells her story of survival. On the morning of March 15, rumors reached her village that Fulani raiders were nearby. She was dressing for church as her husband prepared to join a group of men who’d stand watch. He urged her to take refuge at her sister’s home in another village.

Her first night there, sentinels woke her with a whistle. She left the house to find flames spreading around her. Fulani surrounded her. Then she heard a voice: “Come this way, you can get through!” She did, and her putative savior leapt out of the underbrush, cut three fingers off her right hand, carved the nape of her neck with his machete, shot her, doused her body with gasoline, and lit it. She somehow survived. A few weeks later she returned to her village and learned that the raiders had leveled it the same night. Her husband was among the 72 they murdered.

The Christian Middle Belt is a land of blooming prairies that once delighted English colonizers. On the outskirts of Jos, capital of Plateau state, I visit the ruins of a burned-down church. I spot another, intact. A man emerges to yell at me in English that I don’t belong there. Stalling, I learn that he is Turkish, a member of a “religious mutual assistance group” that is opening madrassas for the daughters of Fulani.

That day I crisscross the Middle Belt. Roads are crumbled, bridges collapsed; destroyed houses cast broken shadows over tree stumps and trails of black ash and blood. Maize rots in the abandoned fields. The local Christians have been killed or are too terrorized to come out and harvest it. In the distance are clusters of white smudges—the Fulani herds grazing on the lush grass. When we approach, the armed shepherds wave us off.

The Anglican bishop of Jos, Benjamin Kwashi, has had his livestock stolen three times. During the third raid he was dragged into his room, a gun to his head. He dropped to his knees and prayed at the top of his voice until the thrumming of a helicopter drove his assailants off.

Bishop Kwashi describes the Fulani extremists’ pattern: They usually arrive at night. They are barefoot, so you can’t hear them coming unless they’re on motorcycle. Sometimes a dog sounds the alert, sometimes a sentinel. Then a terrifying stampede, whirling clouds of dust, cries of encouragement from the invaders. Before villagers can take shelter or flee, the invaders are upon them in their houses, swinging machetes, burning, pillaging, raping. They don’t kill everyone. At some point they stop, recite a verse from the Quran, round up the livestock and retreat. They need survivors to spread fear from village to village, to bear witness that the Fulani raiders fear nothing but Allah and are capable of anything.

The heads of 17 Christian communities have come to the outskirts of Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital, to meet me in a nondescript compound. Some have traveled for days in packed buses or minivans. Each arrives accompanied by a victim or two.

Here they are, an exhausted yet earnestly hopeful group of some 40 women and men, keenly aware of the moment’s gravity. One carries a USB key, another a handwritten account, a third a folder full of photos, captioned and dated. I accept these records, overwhelmed by the weight of the bearers’ hope that the world will recognize the horrors they experienced.

Taking the floor in turn, the survivors confirm the modus operandi Bishop Kwashi described, each adding an awful detail. The mutilated cadavers of women. A mute man commanded to deny his faith, then cut up with a machete until he screams. A girl strangled with the chain of her crucifix.

Westerners here depict the Fulani extremists as an extended, rampant Boko Haram. An American humanitarian says the Fulani recruit volunteers to serve internships in Borno State, where Boko Haram is active. Another says Boko Haram “instructors” have been spotted in Bauchi, another northeastern state, where they are teaching elite Fulani militants to handle more-sophisticated weapons that will replace their machetes. Yet whereas Boko Haram are confined to perhaps 5% of Nigerian territory, the Fulani terrorists operate across the country.

Villagers west of Jos show the weapons they use to defend themselves: bows, slings, daggers, sticks, leather whips, spears. Even these meager arms have to be concealed. When the army comes through after the attacks, soldiers tell the villagers their paltry weapons are illegal and confiscate them.

Several times I note the proximity of a military base that might have been expected to protect civilians. But the soldiers didn’t come; or, if they did, it was only after the battle; or they claimed not to have received the texted SOS calls in time, or not to have had orders to respond, or to have been delayed on an impassable road.

“What do you expect?” our driver asks as we take off in a convoy for his burned-down church. “The army is in league with the Fulani. They go hand in hand.” After one attack, “we even found a dog tag and a uniform.”

“It’s hardly surprising,” says Dalyop Salomon Mwantiri, one of the few lawyers in the region who dare to represent victims. “The general staff of the Nigerian army is a Fulani. The whole bureaucracy is Fulani.”

So is President Muhammadu Buhari. In April 2016 Mr. Buhari ordered security forces to “secure all communities under attack by herdsmen.” In July 2019 a spokesman for the president said in a statement: “No one has the right to ask anyone or group to depart from any part of the country, whether North, South, East or West.”

Most Christians I meet express disgust at the vague language suggesting culpability on both sides. Their stories tend to validate claims of the government’s complicity. In Riyom district, three displaced Nigerians and a soldier were gunned down this June as they attempted to return home. The villagers know the assailants. Police identified them. Everyone knows they took refuge in a nearby village. But there they are under the protection of the ardos, a local emir. No arrests occurred.

Village chief Sunday Abdu recounts another example, a 2017 attack on Nkiedonwhro. This time the military came to warn villagers of a threat. They ordered the women and children to take shelter in a school. But after the civilians complied, a soldier fired a shot in the air. A second shot sounded in the distance, seemingly in response. Minutes later, after the soldiers had departed, the assailants appeared, went directly to the classroom, and fired into the cowering group, killing 27.

I also meet some Fulani—the first time by chance. Traveling by road near a river bed, we come on a checkpoint consisting of a rope stretched across the road, a hut and two armed men. “No passage,” says one, wearing a jacket on which are sewn badges in Arabic and Turkish. “This is Fulani land, the holy land of Usman dan Fodio, our king—and you whites can’t come in.” The conquests of dan Fodio (1754-1817) led to the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate over the Fula and Hausa lands.

The second encounter is on the outskirts of Abuja. Driving toward the countryside, we reach a village unlike the others we’ve seen in the Christian zone. There’s a ditch, and behind it a hedge of bushes and pilings. The place seems closed off from the world. From huts emerge a swarm of children and their mothers, the women covered from head to foot.

It’s a village of Fulani nomads who carried out a tiny, localized Fulanization after the Christians cleared out. “What are you doing here?” demands an adolescent boy wearing a T-shirt adorned with a swastika. “Are you taking advantage of the fact that it’s Friday, and we’re in the mosque, to come spy on our women? The Quran forbids that!” When I ask if wearing a swastika isn’t also contrary to the Quran, he looks puzzled, then launches into a feverish tirade. He says he knows he’s wearing “a German insignia,” but he believes that “all men are brothers,” except for the “bad souls” who “hate Muslims.”

Later I encounter Fulani near Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, which is in the south on the Gulf of Guinea. North of the city is an open-air market where Fulani sell their livestock. I am with three young Christians, survivors of a Middle Belt massacre who live in a camp for displaced persons. They pretend to be cousins buying an animal for a family feast. As they negotiate over a white-horned pygmy goat, I look for Fulani willing to talk.

Most have come from Jigawa state, on the border with Niger, crossing the country south in trucks to bring their stock here. Although I learn little about their trip, they eagerly express their joy in being here, on the border of this contemptible promised land, where they expect to “dip the Quran in the sea.”

There are “too many Christians in Lagos,” says Abadallah, who looks to be in his 40s. “The Christians are dogs and children of dogs. You say Christians. To us they are traitors. They adopted the religion of the whites. There is no place here for friends of the whites, who are impure.” A postcard vendor joins the group and offers me portraits of Osama bin Laden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He agrees the Christians will eventually leave and Nigeria will be “free.”

Some professional disinformers will try to reduce the violence here to one of the “interethnic wars” that inflame Africa. They’ll likely find, here and there, acts of reprisal against the Fula and Hausa. But as my trip concludes, I have the terrible feeling of being carried back to Rwanda in the 1990s, to Darfur and South Sudan in the 2000s.

Will the West let history repeat itself in Nigeria? Will we wait, as usual, until the disaster is done before taking notice? Will we stand by as international Islamic extremism opens a new front across this vast land, where the children of Abraham have coexisted for so long?

Mr. Lévy is author of “The Empire and the Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World” (Henry Holt, 2019). This article was translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »