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Archives ‘The Unfreedom to worship’

March 13, 2024

By Keith Benman
Contributing Writer

In author Okey Ndibe’s first novel, “Arrows of Rain,” a grandmother tells her journalist grandson: “Remember this: A story that must be told never forgives silence.”

Those fictional lines have become a sort of mantra for the Nigerian-born writer, who told a story that must be told once again on Feb. 27 as a featured speaker at the “Trust Truth” series put on by St. Mary’s Catholic Church Canton.

“I feel like I have to speak,” he told an audience of about 50 people packed into Sylvia’s Lounge on Main Street. “And I have to speak fearlessly.”

At the microphone at Sylvia’s, Ndibe spoke about the “The Unfreedom to Worship: The Perils of Being Christian in Nigeria.” For more than an hour, he told of atrocities perpetrated by religious militants and how the perpetrators are almost never brought to justice by the government.

The most well-known case internationally has been that of the 276 Chibok school girls kidnapped in 2014 by Boko Haram, 98 of whom are still believed to be held by the Muslim extremist group, according to Amnesty International. Many of those who have been freed or rescued have returned to their parents with children born in captivity.

As with that kidnapping, most of the atrocities in recent years have been carried out by Muslim militants. But Ndibe preceded his recounting of those atrocities with what he said were important caveats.

“Most Muslims in Nigeria and elsewhere are good, peace loving people,” he said. He told his audience how his own father was once rescued from an extremist mob by the region’s Muslim leader.

But he said the extreme poverty of most of the Nigerian population, and the corruption of the government, have combined to drive young people into the hands of extremist religious leaders.

“Once you kill a Christian, considered an infidel, the state does not bother you,” he said.

And it’s not just in Nigeria. Throughout the African continent, militants are committing atrocities. Ndibe’s friend, Kofi Awoornor, one of Africa’s leading writers, was one of 68 people killed by al-Shebab militants at a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013. He was 78 years old when he was killed.

That part of the presentation had a powerful impact on St. Lawrence University student Jack Funk.

“It’s more damaging even than we can imagine,” he said. “They not only erased a wonderful human being, but they erased someone who had stories, and can tell those stories, and can spread a good gospel.”

Funk was part of a crowd of 50 people who listened intently from tables and barstools while Ndibe talked.
Ndibe told his audience there is hope. There is a solution.

“It requires clear action by every person of conscience, but particularly clear action by governments to make sure that those who feel tempted to commit acts of horror, to kill in the name of God, are held to account,” he said. “Because ultimately, this will be the only way that the scourge is stopped.”

In his writing, Ndibe has continued to tell stories that must be told. He’s done that in a subsequent novel, “Foreign Gods, Inc.,” and a memoir, “Never Look an American in the Eye.”

He also has written columns for the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper and other publications. Those columns landed him on a Nigerian government “watch list,” which almost inevitably results in him being detained by security services at the Lagos airport whenever he returns to visit his native land. But he keeps going back.

St. Mary’s Pastor Father Bryan Stitt introduced Ndibe at the beginning of the night by telling the audience something some might not know about the noted author.

“I’m told by his students, he’s a wonderful professor and also an incredible novelist,” Father Stitt said. “I know him as an incredible man of faith.”

Father Stitt says he first ran into Ndibe when he noticed him attending Masses at St. Mary’s and staying after to say the rosary. Since then, he has always been amazed at Ndibe’s generosity, including his traveling from his home in Connecticut to present at the “Trust Truth” series.

Father Stitt said the rationale behind the ongoing series is just what the title says. That includes presenting the truth of the Gospel as well as truths derived from reason and science. And just as important is the setting. The talks are purposely held away from the church in order to encourage a wider audience to attend.

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