“Your bishop wants to kill you”
When priest friends of Fr. Innocent Sunu learned of the newly ordained priest’s first parish assignment in Madagali, Nigeria, they warned the new priest that his bishop was trying to kill him.
But Fr. Innocent Sunu saw it differently.
In fact this young priest waived his right to refuse his first assignment. But he had waited too long to become a priest, and had developed such an against-all-odds trust in God, to shrink in the face of opportunity.
Instead, he willingly embraced his first assignment to become a pastor in the Nigerian heartland, a place where aggressive Boko Haram terrorists have deep roots.
To give you an idea of just how committed are these terrorists to stamping out Christianity, their very name, “Boko Haram,” means “Western education is forbidden.”
If you don’t yet have chills down your spine, you may remember back in April 2014, when the world held its collective breath in horror when Boko Haram militants kidnapped 276 teen school girls, mostly Christian, from their school in Chibok, a town located just a three-hour drive from Magadali.
Called to do something special
Yet in spire of these and many more terrorist atrocities against Christians, Fr. Innocent responded to his friends: “No, this bishop doesn’t want to kill me. He wants me to go and do something special.”
That was in November 2017, less than a year after two female suicide bombers detonated themselves in Madagali, killing 57 people and injuring more than a hundred.
Four previous Catholic pastors had been murdered in the town the female suicide bombers made there mark of destruction.
Father Sunu was the first priest to go to the parish in five years.
No stranger to hardships, tough circumstances and seemingly unsurmountable obstacles
The second son of a Muslim father and a Catholic mother, Sunu, his brother and their seven sisters chose to become Catholics. Eventually their father followed suit.
Impressed with the students at the local minor seminary, Sunu and his brother received permission to enroll. Although the older brother eventually left the path to ordination, Sunu continued his religious studies as a seminarian and completed his year of pastoral work.
Fr, Sunu expected to be ordained with his class in 2009, but for some unknown reason, the apostolic administrator in charge of his diocese refused to ordain him.
Seven long years later, a new bishop arrived, met Sunu, examined his file, and asked if he’d still like to become a priest.
Sunu responded quickly, “Even if I [were] 100 years old, I’d still want to become a priest,”
Later, when he was offered his dangerous post, the young priest had an unshakeable confidence in God’s plan because God had “never failed” him in the seven years he went without being ordained.
Broken, Terrorized, Saddened, yet Hope and Trust in God Undimmed
After a lonely drive to his new assignment, seeing no cars without soldiers in them, Fr. Innocent Sunu arrived to discover that the parish church had been burned down, completely destroyed.
“I was in the car, crying, and then the Rosary that I hung on my mirror fell — I don’t know how it fell. It fell on my body, and I held it,” Fr. Sunu recounted.
“I was not saying any particular decade. I was just saying the ‘Hail Mary’ and crying. And then a young altar server came and knocked at my door. When I wound down [the window], he said, ‘It’s time for Mass. The people are waiting.’”
A place marked by God
The people had gathered stones from the ruined parish compound for seats and had set up a table under a canopy for the altar.
As Fr. Innocent reflected on the damage—the burnt church, the burnt rectory, the burnt clinic, the burnt school—and in sharp contrast, the faith of the people waiting for their priest, he became convinced the place was marked by God.
“I knew from that day, something must happen in that place,” he said. “So that was how I took on my responsibilities as parish priest — for four years now.”
The threat from Boko Haram never stops, but the thought of his people waiting for him has always propelled Fr. Innocent to say Mass, even when warned not to do so by the local military.
The harsh reality
In many ways the military has not acted as a protector of the Christians from Boko Haram, but more as another oppressor. The priest described to Lifesite editor-in-chief John-Henry Westen ways in which the local soldiers have “become saboteurs” by such actions as appropriating local businesses and farms, and exporting goods needed by the people to nearby Cameroon.
Fr. Innocent knows well that he cannot go too far in remonstrating the soldiers because, as he puts it, they could do “anything” to him and then blame Boko Haram.
The courageous young pastor did not fail to note that “when Boko Haram comes, they [the soldiers] are the first to run.”
The one change Sunu sees in the so-called peace is that there are “no churches left to burn.”
Those who fled and took refuge from Boko Haram in neighboring countries have returned, exhausted, and with such diseases as hepatitis, malaria and typhoid.
There is widespread hunger in Sunu’s parish, as people are not allowed to farm. Food prices have skyrocketed. People faint or are sick in church. Sometimes they have only one set of clothes that they wear day in and day out.
NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations), terrified of the dangerous area, stay only an hour at a time.
And in the absence of any effective government, Fr. Sunu has discovered that he must be everything to his people.
“I am their mechanic, I am their doctor, I am their traditional ruler, I am their lawyer, I am their everything,” Sunu told Westen.
Something can be done. You and I can help.
It makes a big difference.
Fr. Innocent said that the people need clothes, food, medicine, and water. Fortunately, Ireland’s St. Patrick’s Missionary Society donated a water system.
“But it’s not enough because there are more than a thousand people who use [the water system] … every day,” Fr. Sunu lamented.
The Madagali Catholics are strong in faith, but they are in danger of losing hope in their future.
The young pastor has noticed that in particular the men in the community have lost hope in life. However, the women are willing to do any work to survive and thrive. Father Sunu estimates that he knows 300 to 400 women eager to sustain themselves and their families.
As an example, he mentioned the business acumen of a woman who perhaps thinks she can earn money cooking plantains. For $70, she can buy the frying pan, fuel, oil, and fruit she needs to begin making a living.
“Once the business starts, it blossoms,” the priest said.
Fr. Sunu said that Christians in the West need “to know what Christians are facing in this part of the country, or in this part of the world,” including the destroyed homes and other buildings, and the “uncountable” number of people who have been killed.
“So we need your support,” the priest spoke candidly.
“First of all, pray for us so that our faith will be intact,” he continued. “Second, get us to talk to you like this. This is an opportunity … to hear and get to know what is happening from somebody who is at the frontline.”
Fr. Sunu said that Boko Haram assumes Nigerian Christians are vassals of Europe, but this is of course not true. “It is Jesus that we love, and it is Jesus that we serve,” he asserted.
The priest invites financial help, or even just medicine and clothing, for his people. LifeSiteNews readers responded by raising €53,189 — the equivalent of $64,872. The target figure of €50,000 was raised within a matter of hours after Westen’s interview with Fr. Sunu was published.
We at Catholic Business Journal likewise invite readers to join LifeSiteNews readers in supporting Fr. Innocent and Catholics in Nigeria through a specific campaign at LifeFunder (click here).
- Yes I want to safely help Fr. Innocent Sunu and Catholics in Nigeria : Click here.
Heroic Nigerian priest shines light on religious persecution from Boko Haram – Interview of John-Henry Weston with Fr. Innocent Sunu
This story was crafted by Karen A. Walker with information culled from interviews and two articles in LifeSiteNews.