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Evangelization in a Time of War – the Case of the Irish Spiritan Missionaries During the Nigerian-Biafran War

Michael Richmond Duru, a scion of the Land of the Rising, the land of men who treasure honour and heroism, the land of BIAFRA.


Irish Spiritans at the Biafran War

Events have a way of teaching us crucial lessons. Actions have a way of making impacts even beyond the reach of mere words of instruction. Something heroic happened in the defunct Republic of Biafra, the Easter Region of Nigeria, during the Nigerian-Biafran war (1967-1970). The defunct Republic of Biafra was a missionary Church with 95% of its clergy as foreign missionaries, before the State of Nigeria, backed by Britain, her colonial boss, declared war on the young Republic of Biafra. The war was fierce! The Biafrans call it the ‘third world war’, because Britain, USSR, Egypt, the Arab world and the African Union, jointly fought a war of annihilation on the new tiny nation of Biafra. Their purpose was to continue their unfettered exploitation of the rich petroleum resources in the region – which they do to this day. This war led to the ‘genocide’ of about 3.5million Biafrans; though Britain has ensured that this ‘genocide’ is denied or ignored.

As the war raged, British Anglican missionaries were quickly evacuated. But the Irish Catholic missionaries – mainly the Spiritans – refused to abandon their young mission. They refused to leave! They remained all through the war: bishop, priests, brothers, sisters. In fact, more even joined to assist the people, as the heavy war created a severe humanitarian crisis. They continued their missionary work even during the heat of war. Though there were no masses or sacraments or catechisms or schools. Their presence helped to draw the attention and aid of the Irish people to the humanitarian crisis created by the war. Their presence and services endeared them and their Faith to the people. This gesture became the highest form of evangelization that turned the greater majority of the people to the Catholic faith to this day; and even those who remained with their original denominations, continually pay glowing tributes to the Irish Sisters and Fathers who helped them survive a war of annihilation, comparable only to the Jewish holocaust.

The consolidation and deepening of the Faith which the Irish Spiritan Missionaries could not achieve from 1912 to 1966, they more or less achieve between 1967 and 1970 during which the war lasted. Though the war, caused many to question God, the Catholics who survived it, were so proud of their faith while others saw light in Catholicism. But the Nigerian and British governments were angry with the Irish missionaries. They arrested them, imprisoned them for six days and repatriated them to Ireland, leaving Biafra with only 5% indigenous priests. However, the seed that the Irish missionaries sowed in a time of war has been bearing abundant fruits. As at the year 2012, the centenary of the Catholic Church in the second part of this region, the highest number of major seminaries, major seminarians, priests and missionaries in Africa come from this region.

Though they were not directly attacked in the course of the war, many of them died by the harsh environment of the war and other factors. Yet, they remained. They went into trenches, in hiding, with the people. Since they were not war targets, they went to places where the people could not go, to obtain what the people needed, such as relief food and medication. Asked why they refused evacuation, they replied that the Faith was more important than their lives; that if they left, people would die without the Sacraments; but if they stayed, at least, people would die with Christ. The presence of these missionaries gave people hope. It became their best ‘method’ of evangelization. Today, their graves are testimonies of true faith and places of pilgrimage, in the Biafra Region of Nigeria.

Michael Richmond Duru

Irish Spiritan Missionaries of the Biafran War

Irish Spiritan Missionaries of the Biafran War

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© 2022 Michael Richmond Duru

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