Bishop Oliver Dashe Doeme of the Diocese of Maiduguri in Nigeria sat quietly in the Cardinal Room at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary last Friday as he listened to his assistant, Fr. Gideon Obasogie, also from Nigeria, recall a story of one parishioner, a young boy.
The boy was taken by Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group, and was gone for four days.
“The Boko Haram never touched him,” Fr. Obasogie said in an interview with the Catholic Herald. “He had the strength somewhere.”
Fr. Obasongie said the boy was threatened with knives and guns.
“They blindfolded him and told the rest (of Boko Haram) they were going to take him to the forest to kill him,”
Fr. Obasongie said. “And they took him out and dropped him by the roadside … he found his way back home.”
Fr. Obasongie said, “That was like, wow.”
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While listening to this story, a single tear slowly descended halfway down Bishop Doeme’s face. This was a happy story, but it was also a rare story.
Bishop Doeme, 55, a native of Plateau, Nigeria, has been working in the Diocese of Maiduguri since 2009, and has had to deal directly with Boko Haram.
“Since its emergence, it has been one attack after another on the church, on individuals, families,” Bishop Doeme said. “When I came there, I encountered the insurgency that is Boko Haram.”
Bishop Doeme, who was in Milwaukee to speak at the 10th annual Men of Christ Conference, March 12, said it’s been difficult for the military to fight the terrorists.
“Some powerful people, from another part of Nigeria, supported this group,” Bishop Doeme said. “Individuals or groups supported this particular sect by giving them funds and arms for the members to use.”
He said this support allowed the group to grow.
Men of christ
The tenth annual Men of Christ conference took place on March 12 and was attended by men from across Wisconsin. Approximately 2,500 attended the conference.
Bishop Oliver Dashe Doeme was one of the featured speakers and spoke about using faith to fight against Boko Haram.
The other speakers include Jeff Cavins, on expressing Catholic truths in a practical way; Fr. Richard Simon, on death judgment, heaven and hell; Kyle Clement, on becoming a spiritual warrior; and Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki celebrated the Mass.
“They could easily overcome the military,” Bishop Doeme said.
The fighting between the government and the group has had a profound impact on the diocese.
“The Boko Haram members captured many areas in our diocese,” Bishop Doeme said. “And as they captured many areas, people have to flee. Especially from their ancestral homes … they’ve had to fear for their own lives.”
Bishop Doeme said when he was made a bishop in 2009, there were more than 125,000 Catholics in his diocese; now there are fewer than 70,000.
“Even the priests had to run for their lives,” he said. “They couldn’t have stayed, and even if they did stay, who would they minister to?”
Bishop Doeme said more than 25 priests have been relocated to other parts of the country and neighboring towns to continue their ministry.
“Even the female religious had to run for their dear lives and their convents destroyed,” he said. “It has been really devastating to our people.”
With the diocese under attack, Bishope Doeme has become accustomed to handling the anxiety.
“Fear will always come,” he said. “But then, as a believer, the faith overshadows the fear.”
He said that, as a bishop, his job is to face the threat head on.
“As the bishop, I am in a particular place because God has planted me there in order to serve the people,” he said. “One of the things that the bishop should never joke with is to abandon his people or to run away from his people. He shouldn’t do that at all.”
The most famous incident involving Boko Haram in the Diocese of Maiduguri is known in the United States as “Bring Back Our Girls.” According to Bringbackourgirls.us, on April 14, 2014, Boko Haram terrorists abducted more than 270 schoolgirls from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok.
“Most of the girls that were taken were Christians and I hope they’re still Christians up until now,” Bishop Doeme said. He added that they continue to pray for their release, though so far only 56 girls have returned.
In 2014, Bishop Doeme claims he had a vision of Jesus Christ during eucharistic adoration.
“He had a sword in his hand,” Bishop Doeme said. “I received the sword and it turned into a rosary.”
He said he heard Christ say, “Boko Haram is gone.”
Bishop Doeme said prayer will eventually defeat the terrorist group. As for the vision itself, it’s not something upon which he focuses.
“That vision is all about me, it’s all about the bishop,” he said. “I’m just a person. A very weak and fragile person.”
During their visit to Milwaukee, Bishop Doeme and Fr. Obasogie hope to raise awareness of what’s been happening in their diocese.
“If we call ourselves brothers and sisters, then (fellow Catholics) should come to our rescue,” Bishop Doeme said. “There are many ways that can be done.”
He said they’re asking for prayers and financial contributions that can be donated directly to the diocese to help them.
“It is true that a lot of people here don’t know what is happening around the area,” Bishop Doeme said. “But you also have some that do know and choose not to bother.”
Bishop Doeme even got the attention of the Vatican.
“I met the pope last year,” he said, adding it was a brief meeting. “He’s praying for us, for me and my people. But even apart from that, he also sent some funds directly to us … so we’re able to take care of our own devastated people.”
There are rays of hope that come as the government continues to fight Boko Haram, he said.
“Some of these places that are captured, now, are freed,” Bishop Doeme said. “People have started coming back.”
One of those places was the previous parish of Fr. Obasogie, who was “heartbroken” when his parish was overtaken.
“Late last year, the military was able to chase the terrorists out and now people are coming back,” Fr. Obasogie said. “The place is still volatile, still very unstable … but people are quite faithful and are coming back.”
Fr. Obasogie said the diocese receives reports from priests when there are attacks.
“The first thing, we pray for them. But we’re really, really, really heartbroken,” Fr. Obasogie said. “Because a community that used to be very peaceful, quite friendly, very religious and faithful, and now you hear them calling from across the border, calling from the mountains.”
The fighting has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Nigerian Catholics.
“Far above 500 Catholics have been killed,” Fr. Obasogie said, adding it hasn’t stopped their fight. “You can destroy the churches, you can destroy the rectories, but you cannot destroy the faith.”
When he goes back to Nigeria, Bishop Doeme said he’ll return with a message of hope.
“Victory will always come our way,” he said. “I will tell the people, there’s hope for the American church.”