By Fr Michael Nsikak Umoh
Leaders of church and state as well as traditional rulers were unanimous in their call for peace among all the ethnicities and groups inhabiting Gashaka and the Kwararafa kingdom, as multitudes gathered on the open field of Government Secondary School, Wukari, for the erection of the Wukari Diocese and the ordination and installation of the new bishop.
The bishop of the Jalingo Diocese, the Most Rev. Charles Hammawa, who was the chief host by virtue of transferring a part of his diocese that became the Wukari Diocese, set the tone for the call for peace in his welcome remark at the beginning of the holy Mass on Thursday, 13 April, 2023.
Having thanked numerous persons who have been instrumental to the successful creation of the new diocese and those who supported the erection and installation ceremony, Bishop Hammawa expressed the desire that the new development would usher in a reign of peace in the community.
“I believe the new Diocese of Wukari led by its chief shepherd, [the] Most Rev. Mark Maigida Nzukwein, with the full and total support and cooperation of the presbyterium, religious, lay faithful and people of goodwill, will be the symbol and beacon of hope, joy, unity and peace not only to the Catholic faithful, but also to the whole of Christendom and the people of other faiths in the diocese, Taraba State, Nigeria and beyond.
“And so, to all the people of the new Diocese of Wukari, of all religious, ethnic, social and political persuasions, I beg you to always remember these indisputable realities of life: No matter how many times the teeth bite the tongue, they still stay together in one mouth. That is the spirit of forgiveness. Even though the eyes don’t see each other, they see things together, blink simultaneously and cry together. That is unity.
“Always be wanting peace with all people and don’t allow bitterness to grow among yourselves which can cause trouble and poison the whole community. So please embrace and practise forgiveness and live together in unity that peace may reign,” he appealed.
Following in the same step, the apostolic nuncio in his sermon reminded the people that the gifts of a new diocese and bishop are not meant to foster division and bitterness, but rather “so that the gospel can reach everyone and all can meet the risen and living Lord Jesus and be saved through the work of the Church, the family of God, without borders or barriers”.
While Archbishop Antonio Filipazzi specifically challenged the new bishop “to counteract those factors which tend to disrupt the unity of the Church and social harmony”, he called on “the priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful [to] be bridge-builders” with the bishop. Moreover, the vice president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN), Archbishop Matthew Ndagoso, representing the president, congratulated and welcomed the new bishop to the conference of bishops in Nigeria while also thanking the nuncio for the enormous work he was doing in the country as the pope’s representative. He appealed to the priests and people of God to collaborate with their new shepherd in order to achieve the desired progress and growth in the diocese and peace among all persons and ethnicities in the whole community.
Bishop Nzukwein, in his final remark, also expressed concern over the fragile peace in the community, while thanking the pope, the nuncio, Bishop Charles Hammawa and all the bishops, priests, the religious, the people of God, the state governor, other government officials, traditional rulers and all those present for their support and goodwill.
He told the people that the occasion offered the community, from up the Mambila plateau to Gashaka and the entire Kwararafa kingdom, the opportunity “to see how the reality of this same faith has been lived out over the years … amidst the shadow of the persistent challenges of gross intolerance that has led to series of intra-tribal, inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts”.
“Consequently, beyond the euphoria of today’s unique celebration, we, the inhabitants of the newly established diocese (that is, the Jukun, Chamba, Kuteb, Tiv, Ichen, Jibu, Mambila, Kaka, Panso, Kambu, Hausa Fulani, Ndoro, Indola, Jebou, Tigun, Badaki, Yuguben, Igbo, Ogoja and many others) should take advantage of this unique occasion to calmly reflect on the sacred responsibility of seeing in the face of the other, the image of God. No matter our ethnic extraction … we are, in the first place, brothers and sisters.”
In spite of some logistic challenges including tough access to the terrain and cancellation of flights, the occasion witnessed a good number of bishops and priests. Some of the bishops including John Cardinal Onaiyekan and the apostolic nuncio had to access Wukari through the deplorable Lafiya–Shendam road and had to cross the river Ibbi with their cars and buses in a ferry. The state governor was represented by the secretary to the state government, while the paramount ruler of the land, who donated a piece of land to the diocese, was also present.