John Shiklam unearths some of the politics that are currently threatening the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in the wake of the decision by the Catholic Church to pull out of the association
The recent statements by the administrator of the Catholic Diocese of Abeokuta, Monsignor Christopher Ajala, announcing the withdrawal of the membership of the Catholic Church from the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has thrown many Christians in Nigeria into confusion.
CAN, according to Ajala who was speaking at an event marking the anniversary of the diocese "is now being run as part of the government, and we said no because they (government) will not dictate to us what to do and they will not take our advice seriously. The Catholic Church decided to withdraw from the activities of CAN at national level; we are still part of the state chapter. We made our stand clear in November last year, and by December, the man (the CAN President, Pastor Oritsejafor) bought a jet.
"So, what we are saying is that our religious leaders should be honest, upright and they should also be the conscience of this nation.... If you can use money to buy our religious leaders, then there is no hope for the common man...." he was reported to have said.
Since then, Christians in the country have been spellbound by the decision of the Catholic Church to pull out temporarily from the umbrella body for Christians in the country. Many people have described the situation as embarrassing and that it was not in the best interest of the church in Nigeria at this trying moments.
CAN was founded in 1964 by the late Ambassador Tanko Jolly Yusuf and some northern Christians who wanted a platform upon which Christian civil servants in the north could fight the maltreatment, marginalisation and discrimination against the Christians in the northern civil service. Known at that as the "Northern Christian Forum", it sought to unite Christians in the region to speak with one voice over issues affecting them.
However, in the early 1970s, the need arose for Christians in the northern and southern parts of the country to come together under one body and a meeting was held at the Catholic Secretariat in Lagos which was the capital of Nigeria at that time. It was at that meeting that the name of the association was changed from Northern Christian Forum to Christian Association of Nigeria with the specific objectives of uniting all Christians in the country for common purposes.
Article 5 of the association's constitution is explicit about its objectives: "To serve as a basis of response to the unity of the church, especially as contained in our Lord's pastoral prayers that all may be one; to promote understanding, peace and unity among the various strata of society in Nigeria through the propagation of the gospel; to act as liaison committee by means of which each member churche can consult together and when necessary make common statements and take common action; to act as a watchman of the spiritual and the moral welfare of the nation".
The first president of CAN was Cardinal Nkandem, a Catholic who led the association for about ten years. He was succeeded by another Catholic priest, Cardinal Anthony Okogie who served for 8 years. Okogie was succeeded by Prelate Sunday Nbang from the Methodist Church who held the position for six years. He was succeeded by Primate Jasper Akinola from Anglican Church. Akinola was in office for three years after which Cardinal John Onaiyikan was elected president of the association.
Onaiyikan served for a term of three years and contested for a second term but was defeated by the current President of the association, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, from the Word of Life Bible Church, a Pentecostal fellowship in a keenly contested election. As it is obvious, the Catholic Church appears to have dominated the leadership of the association more than any of the five blocs of the churches that make up the association.
The five blocs were created for administrative convenience and ease of decision-making process. They are: the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria (CSN) as a bloc on its own and the Christian Council of Nigeria (CCN) bloc, made up of Anglican Church, Methodist Church, First African Church and Presbyterian Church of Nigeria among others.
Others are the Christian Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (CPFN)/ Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), comprising the Apostolic Church, Christ Apostolic Church, Redeem Christian Church, Living Faith, Living Faith Foundation, Deeper Life Bible Church, Church on the Rock, Chapel of Praise Word of life Bible Church among the many Pentecostal churches.
There is also the TEKAN/ECWA bloc comprising of the ECWA (Evangelical Church Winning All), Church of Christ in Nations (COCIN), Lutheran Church of Christ (LCCN) Evangelical Church of Christ (ECC), Nongo Kristu Hen Sudan Tiv ( NKST), Christian Reform Church of Nigeria (CRCN), Church of the Brethren (CB), All Nations Christian Assembly (ANCA), United Church of Christ in Nigeria (UCCN), Evangelical Reform Church of Christ in Nigeria (ERCCN), United Methodist Church of Nigeria (UMCN), Nigeria Reformed Church ( NRC) and Mambilla Baptist Church of Nigeria. Also included are the Organisation of African Instituted Churches (OAIC) which has Cherubim and Seraphim Movement (CSM) and others.
It was learnt that the highest decision making body of the association is the Assembly which comprises of the National Executive Council (NEC) and representatives from all the five blocs.
However, the current crisis in the fold, observers said, may not be unconnected to Oritsejafor's emergence as CAN president. Investigations revealed that right from the outset, the Catholic never accepted Oritsejafor as CAN president after Onaiyikan lost the election to him. It is therefore believed that politics, rather than the issues Oritsejiafor is being accused of, is the bone of contention.
Although, Oritsejafor is not the only man of God with Private Jet in Nigeria, there were insinuations in some quarters that he may have made some money from government to purchase the plane despite his disclosure that the plane was a gift from his church members and friends.
The strained relationship in CAN peaked last year when the Catholic Bishop Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) in a letter dated September 24, 2012 raised concerns about attitudes, utterances and action of the leadership of the association, which it claimed negated the concept of the foundation of the association.
In the letter entitled: "Our concern for Christian unity", addressed to Oritsejafor and signed by the President of the CBCN and Arch. Bishop of Jos Catholic Diocese, Most. Rev. Ignatius Kaigama, the Catholic body said: "We wish to bring to your notice the concern of the Catholic bloc of the association over some recent attitudes, utterances and actions of the National leadership of CAN, which in our opinion negate the concept of the foundation of the association and the desire of Our Lord Jesus Christ. That they All may be one.
"The CSN bloc hereby suspends participation in CAN meetings at the National level until such a time the leadership of CAN reverses to the original vision, mission and objectives of CAN. We have been compelled to take this painful decision because of the following reasons: That the present state of CAN has departed from the original concept of her founding fathers of which our bloc is a prominent stakeholder.
"That the motto of CAN: 'That they All may be one' is not taken as a priority. We note a total neglect of Ecumenism and unwillingness to learn the theological foundations of Christian unity. The Directorate of Ecumenism and interfaith which is one of the missions of CAN is not given a priority attention to promote peace and unity in the nation which is the mandate of Christ to all Christians.
"That CAN is being dragged into partisan politics, thereby compromising its ability to play its true role as conscience of the nation and the voice of the voiceless. That there is not enough respect for and involvement of all the blocs of CAN in major decisions and activities; That CAN is no longer acting on consensus on major issues.
"CAN is not a mega church but an association of different churches. Therefore, any claims by the President to be the leader of Christians in Nigeria must take this into account. We remain committed to the promotion of Christian unity in the country. We recall our major contributions at the foundation and growth of the association. That is why we are compelled to call your attention to the anomalies we see now. We remained open to further discussions and dialogue while we pray for the light of the Holy Spirit to guide us all to a better future".
But Oritsejafor, in his reply, thanked the Catholic Bishops for their letter and said it had been his desire to dialogue with the catholic leadership. His reply which was dated October 10, 2012, read: "Greetings to you in the precious name of Redeemer and saviour, Jesus Christ- amen. I want to thank you for your letter on the above topic dated September 24, 2012.
"It has been my wish to have a dialogue with the catholic leadership. In view of the above, I request that you kindly give me a suitable date for a meeting between the Catholic leadership and CAN national leadership as soon as possible. May His grace be sufficient for all of us-amen."
In yet another letter acknowledging Oritsejaor's reply, the General Secretary of the CBCN, Rev. Monsignor Mike Ekpenyong, told the CAN President that the plenary of the Catholic Bishops comes up in February 2013 and he would be informed when and where the leadership of the CBCN and the leadership of CAN could meet.
But some of the questions most observers are asking are: why didn't the catholic bishops wait till after their meeting with the CAN leadership before their withdrawal? What really are their grudges against the leadership of CAN? Is it that the leadership has derailed or is it because the CAN president bought a private Jet?
The issue has attracted various comments from Nigerian Christians all over the world, especially in the social media with many describing the situation as embarrassing and divisive.
As curious as that appears, many observers envisage a situation where the February meeting between the Catholic bishops and the CAN leadership would resolve their disagreement without taking it a mess further. Whilst observers contend that the pains and anger of the catholic bishops cannot be dismissed, it also behooves of them to see reason and not push the issue unnecessarily further in the interest of the collective peace of the Nigerian Christians and the nation at large.
More importantly, the CAN has a role to play in the socio-political realm of the country and should they allow such needless bickering, they may be trading their once revered position in the entire body polity for sheer scorn.