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Is there a reason President Higgins seemed blind to persecution of Christians? 

The Bishop of Ondo, Jude Arogundade, issued a stern rebuke to the Irish President, Michael D. Higgins, for his official statement following the slaughter of over 40 Christians at St Francis Church, Owo in Ondo State in Nigeria on the 5th of June.  

The attack, which took place on Pentecost Sunday as Catholic worshippers were attending Mass, left more than 40 dead, including many children, and another 100 injured, when gunmen entered the Church unleashing a hail of bullets and throwing dynamite amongst the crowd.

In response to the massacre, the Irish President issued a statement of condolence which appeared to suggest that the killing was as a result of climate change and food insecurity. This came based on reports that the murderers were herdsmen who were disgruntled after the local government placed restrictions on grazing

After offering condolences to the family, President Higgins continued: “

“That such an attack was made in a place of worship is a source of particular condemnation, as is any attempt to scapegoat pastoral peoples who are among the foremost victims of the consequences of climate change … The solidarity of us all, as peoples of the world, is owed to all those impacted not only by this horrible event but in the struggle by the most vulnerable on whom the consequences of climate change have been inflicted.”

The local Bishop, in response to the Irish President’s seeming instrumentalising of the deaths of the victims of the atrocity for an ideological end, wrote a public letter to the Irish President, titled: “Setting the Record Straight: The Massacre At St Francis Catholic Church Owo Has Nothing To Do With Climate Change And Food Security Issues In Africa”.

Clearly unimpressed that the Irish President would use his public expression of sympathy to transfer focus away from the victims and the issue at hand, and onto climate change and land-use issues in a manner that comes across as insensitive at best. The Bishop responded forcefully:

“To suggest or make a connection between victims of terror and consequences of climate change is not only misleading but also exactly rubbing salt in the injuries of all who have suffered terrorism in Nigeria. The victims of terrorism are of another category to which nothing can be compared! It is very clear to anyone who has been closely following the events in Nigeria over the past years that the issues of terror attacks, banditry, and unabated onslaught in Nigeria and the Sahel Region and climate change have nothing in common”.

The Bishop stated such comments from the President are deflections from the truth and he asked that commentator “who are trying to take advantage of this horrific event to project any form of ideological agenda” to refrain from doing so. In response to the letter, a spokesperson for the President, speaking to the Irish Times denied connecting the murders to climate change.

“The President’s comments with regard to climate change related to the plight of pastoral peoples in the region and the President made no link in his statement between climate change and the attack itself”.

Technically correct perhaps, but any fair reading of the original statement would assume a causal link between the two: otherwise, why would the President addend a commentary on climate change and pastoralism to his public expression of condolence?

In his letter to the President, Bishop Arogundade, reflected on the strong links in his diocese to the Irish missions: the first two Bishops of the diocese were Irish; the Church where the attack took place was built by Irish missionaries, and many of those killed were baptised by Irish missionaries.

In Nigeria, the memory of the Irish missions and Irish Catholicism is viewed positively, yet in Ireland, the statement from the Irish President reflects an internal (sub-conscious?) prejudice towards Catholicism that exists both at a societal level but also connected to the President’s philosophical background.

For decades, if not centuries, the Catholic Church, has played a central role in Irish society, providing education and healthcare across the country before the State was even in existence and playing a leading role in these services when the State was unable to do so. Times have changed, and Catholicism is no longer central to Ireland. Rather, it is looked on with opprobrium, as social mores deem Catholic views on marriage, the family, abortion, outdated.

President Higgins comes from a socialist background, an academic and politician from the Left, who though declining to confirm whether he is an atheist, but describing himself as spiritual rather than religious, would have little sympathies with the institutional Catholic Church.

The Church, having been such a dominant force in Ireland, seems to create a mental inability in many in Ireland to acknowledge the persecution of Christians around the world, and this is reflected in President Higgins response to the massacre in Nigeria. At least 4,650 Nigerian Christians were killed for their faith in 2021 and nearly 900 in the first three months of 2022 though this has never been a source of outrage. There also persists a strange silence on the slow elimination of Christians in the Middle East while concern is raised for people suffering from more abstract causes such as climate change.

The approach taken by the President, which could be seen as failing to acknowledge the reality facing millions of Christians around the world, unwittingly instrumentalises their deaths in the name of his priority ideological concerns. Equally, diverting attention from those that were killed to expressing concern that pastoralists may be scapegoated as a result of the attack, is at best, tone deaf, but extremely insensitive and dismissive of those that have just been slaughtered in a vicious terrorist attack.

To suggest that climate change or food insecurity issues forced the gunmen to enter the Church and mow down innocent victims is to deny the murderers any agency in the actions. If such an approach can be taken in this case, then every mass shooting across the world, can be put down to some external cause. Mass shootings in schools in the United States could be excused on the grounds of social disruption. Although it is good that the President has denied making this causal link, but he does not explain why he conflated the issues in the first place.

Such causal reasoning has no grounding in reality. For millions that are disenfranchised, they do not choose to murder innocent bystanders in cold blood. President Higgins has always supported the causes of liberation groups around the world – in Latin America and Palestine primarily – looking at actions through the lens of revolution.

It is a Marxist approach that the end justifies the means. The great goals of the movement always justify rolling roughshod over some of the basic principles of good behaviour. This was brought to the extreme in just about every Marxist movement connected with Communism. For cultural – Marxism, the same principles seem to apply although not anything like a comparable degree.
Whatever cause is being popularised or promoted is sufficiently important – of paramount importance – that the basic decency of not instrumentalising a terrorist attack to promote the cause seems to have been overlooked. It is hard to understand how the President could not see that it was just not the right time for the grand statement.

Coupled with this, it is the inability to see the possibility of Christians and Catholics being victims of persecution simply because they are Christians or Catholics that is deeply embedded in the Western enlightenment psyche. Even if this possibility is seen, it cannot be readily admitted to because the West is in a battle between secularist cultural-Marxism and Christianity, a battle being won by the former that cannot give any ground – even as far away as Nigeria – that may humanise Christians or Christianity as more than an antiquated artifact of times that have to be left behind.

It isn’t to suggest that the Irish President’s words were designed with this intention, but he was not speaking off the cuff. This was a crafted statement that allowed time for reflection on what was being said. Perhaps it is a case that there was no malice intended, and if so, it highlights a blindspot that exists in understanding the effects of such words which was highlighted by the Bishop of Ondo. If nothing else, it demonstrates that the President is out of touch. On a human level, you expect him, or anyone, to simply know better.

It is the equivalent of posting your sympathies on for the victim of drunk driver and adding a comment about the effects of the closure of rural pubs that pushed the driver into driving 8 times over the limit. There may be a legitimate issue to be discussed but there is a time and a place.

Making a grand statement about climate change on the deaths of 40 Catholics, whatever the intent, will feel like a kick in the stomach to the Catholics of Ondo, in particular coming from an Irish President whose country is so closely bound to the foundations of the parish and diocese.


David Reynolds

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