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NIGERIA-PILGRIMAGE Sep-24-2012 (640 words) With photos. xxxi
In Rome, Nigerians see social benefits from spiritual pilgrimages
By Cindy Wooden
A Nigerian pilgrim sings as 50 Christian government officials and religious leaders visit the Church of St. John the Baptist in Rome Sept. 21. (CNS/Cindy Wooden)
Catholic News Service
ROME (CNS) -- Prayers for peace and an end to terrorism and corruption in Nigeria filled Rome's Church of St. John the Baptist, as 50 Christian government officials and religious leaders visited the Eternal City in preparation for sending 30,000 Nigerians on pilgrimage.
The Nigerian government gives financial aid to Christians visiting the Holy Land and New Testament sites in Greece and Rome, just as it pays for Muslims to make the "haj," or pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
John Kennedy Opara, executive secretary of the government's Nigeria Christian Pilgrim Commission, told Catholic News Service that helping pilgrims is part of the government's responsibility to "provide for the welfare of the people."
"We believe pilgrimage is a tool for moral transformation and spiritual rebirth," he said, explaining that pilgrimages help Muslims and Christians deepen their faith and renew their commitment to living holy lives, which benefits the whole country.
At an ecumenical prayer service Sept. 21, the Nigerian group prayed softly for family members and loved ones but grew more energetic when praying for the continued unity of Nigeria and an end to corruption. The volume rose dramatically when one of the leaders prayed for the downfall of the "behemoth Boko Haram," a terrorist group that claims to be promoting an Islamic Nigeria by attacking Christian churches, military barracks and police stations.
"We pray that these perpetrators of evil will be uprooted in Jesus name," one participant called out.
Opara said, "The problem we have in Nigeria isn't actually Muslims fighting Christians, but a select few who have decided to fight the interests of the people" by trying to bring down the government and by attacking Christian churches.
In the coming year, Opara said, Nigeria hopes to help 30,000 Christians make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and in some cases also Greece and Rome. At the same time, some 90,000 Nigerian Muslims are expected to make the Haj, a pilgrimage that all Muslims are encouraged to make at least once in their lifetimes.
The government office for assisting Muslim pilgrims has existed longer in Nigeria, and "Muslims seem to understand more about pilgrimage than the Christians," Opara said. "But we are working with Christians and trying to help them learn about the importance of pilgrimage."
"A pilgrimage is a holy journey, a journey of a lifetime," he said. "We let the pilgrims know that they are going in order to pray and that they should go expecting something to happen in their lives. When they come, they will have a divine encounter, and God will touch their lives."
Archbishop Nemuel Babba, head of the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria, said that through Boko Haram, "the devil is trying to destroy us," but Nigerian Christians and Muslims continue to pray and to resist the spirit of divisiveness.
The archbishop said religious and government leaders hope Nigerians will be spiritually transformed by their pilgrimage experience and return home ready to transform the country.
But, he said, "it is not only Boko Haram that is destroying us. We have corruption that is destroying us. This kind of spiritual journey helps to transform us so we can help transform our nation."
In Nigeria, there are "people who are very rich spiritually, but materially poor," he said. "If the government can help them build on that spiritual richness through pilgrimages, that will help the government. It can stop corruption, it can stop armed robbery, it can stop terrorism. It can stop all this evil."
While the government gives financial aid to poorer Nigerian pilgrims, many pay their own way or travel thanks to the generosity of relatives. The government assists them by arranging pilgrimage packages and providing them with advantageous currency exchange rates.
The Rome portion of the pilgrimage is coordinated by Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, a Vatican-related tour agency.
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