…As Anambra community, Catholic Church dust-to-dust rite dispute escalates
•No, he is interfering with our tradition –Youths
From Geoffrey Anyanwu, Awka
The dispute between the Roman Catholic Church and the Awka community of Umudioka over the performance of dust-to-dust burial rites has taken a dangerous dimension with the Cathedral Administrator, Rev. Fr. Patrick Amaobi Chukwuma of St. Patrick Cathedral, Awka, raising the alarm that he has been marked for elimination by youths of the area.
Consequently, the clergyman who administers the Awka Diocese Cathedral for the Bishop, now lives in hideouts and has passionately called on the state Police Commissioner, CP Ballah Nasarawa to come to his rescue and abort the alleged evil plot of the youths of Umudioka and their sponsors.
The Roman Catholic Church in Awka and Umudioka village have been at loggerheads for a long time over women performing the dust-to-dust funeral rites during the burial of their husbands.
While the church says it’s a religious obligation members of the church owe their beloved ones when they die, Umudioka people are insisting that it is a taboo in their land for a woman to participate in the rites (that is putting earth into the grave of their late husbands during burial).
The disagreement degenerated into a disturbing point, on March 3, 2011 when the youths of Umudioka allegedly attacked the priests and Roman Catholic faithful who attended the burial of one Mr. Raphael Nwako at Umudioka. The matter is pending in court.
However, notwithstanding the general condemnation of the incident by notable citizens, including the traditional ruler of Awka community, Eze Uzu, Obi Gibson Nwosu, the youths allegedly struck again on May 23, 2013 and this time, desecrated sacred vessels of the church and even burnt the church’s materials including a crucifix and an altar set up for burial Mass.
Not only were they alleged to have destroyed those items and chased everyone away, the youths were also alleged to have gone in search of the Cathedral Administrator, Rev. Fr. Chukwuma and threatening to kill him.
Narrating his ordeal in Umudioka village, which according to him, is the only village in Awka and the entire Awka Catholic Diocese that is challenging the church on the issue of dust-to-dust burial rites, to Sunday Sun, Rev. Fr. Chukwuma said “My life is in serious danger because these people are seriously looking for me to kill, they said I am their problem.”
The bone of contention
“The battle is the battle of faith. Precisely, the Catholic faith, in the Catholic Diocese of Awka. The dust-to-dust burial rites is the problem. For we Catholics , when the husband dies, the wife performs the dust-to-dust rites. If it’s the wife, the husband does it and also children do that to their departed father or mother or brothers or sisters. So, for us, the dust-to-dust rites is an act of love, it’s a final farewell one can say to a loved one who has just departed. But some people believe it’s a taboo, especially people of Umudioka, the non Catholics. We can say, the pagans, but some of them are Christians and still they believe it is an abomination to do it.
“We have been explaining that it’s not an abomination and we are not obliging non Catholics to do it. It’s for Catholics only. So they are saying that we must not do it in Umudioka. We said we have the right to bury our dead, they said no, that once after celebrating Mass, then they should bury their dead ones, that the dust-to-dust rites will not be done.
The first attack
This happened in 2011, precisely on March 3, when I went to the burial of one Mr. Raphael Nwako at Umudioka. We finished the mass here at St. Patrick, the Cathedral Church, and we marched down to the bereaved family. We started blessing the grave. After blessing the grave, we were about to lower the corpse into the grave, then I saw some youths jumping into the compound and then surrounded the grave side. They came in with a bundle of sticks. The leader of the youths distributed the canes, then they started flogging everybody.The Catechist, the zonal leader, myself and everybody and they scattered the Catholic community that came for the burial of their beloved one.
“It was so fierce, because after the flogging, they came to me and said I must surrender the shovel. They pushed, hit me and overpowered me and took away the shovel. For the sake of peace, we didn’t want to take laws into our hands. We left the place and they buried the man without completing the prayers. They bundled the wife away so that she could not go near. I reported the matter to the police and they were arrested. The matter is still in court, but they went on doing the same thing until the recent happening on May 23, 2013.”
“Mr. Samuel Nwanna Nnebolise was a faithful Catholic till his death on April 11, 2013, after a protracted illness. He hailed from Umudioka Village in Awka. He was ostracized by the villagers because of his strong faith in the Catholic Church. A day before his death, the Assistant Cathedral Administrator, Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Kenechukwu Okika administered the Sacrament of the sick to the ailing Mr. Samuel Nwanna Nnebolise on his sick-bed in his family home, Umudioka Awka.
“The family respected the wish of the late Samuel N. Nnebolise that the Catholic Church should bury him. Hence, the first son and one of his daughters came to my office and invited St. Patrick’s Cathedral Parish to come and bury their late father as he wished. We fixed May 23rd for the burial Mass and funeral. These events were scheduled to take place in the deceased’s compound.
“I and my two assistants, Fr. Emma Okika and Fr. Austin Mary Okoye were on our way to the deceased’s home on that fateful Thursday, 23 May, 2013. Some other Reverend Fathers also came for the burial Mass. A report reached us that the Umudioka dissident village youths have taken over the compound. Their leader, Mr. Ejike Nwude and his boys, numbering about fifty, wounded one of our Catholic youths digging the grave. They beat the second son of the deceased into unconsciousness. They smashed the altar set for Mass and broke the candle globes, the crucifix and other materials for the burial Mass. All these sacred vessels they buried in the grave being dug. They chased away the Catholic faithful present and carried away some of the seats arranged for the event. They also harassed some of the priests who had already arrived for the burial Mass. They threatened to kill me, should I appear at the scene. To avoid bloodshed and taking laws into our hands, the corpse of the deceased, which had already arrived in the compound, was re-deposited at Regina Caeli Mortuary, Awka. From the order given by our Bishop, Most Rev. Dr. P.C. Ezeokafor, the burial ceremony was put off till further notice. The family and the Church encountered many losses because of the disruption.
“Military men and the Police we invited to maintain peace and order couldn’t act because of the influence of an ex-Army General and a serving Police Commissioner who are from Umudioka Awka and are on the side of the dissident Umudioka village youths fighting against the Church.
“After the disruption of the burial ceremony, the Umudioka dissident youths marched along Zik Avenue shouting victory songs over the Catholic Church. They have vowed that no Reverend Father will venture to bury any person in Umudioka village again. The day before, these youths had a meeting during which they vowed to attack the priests and church members coming for the burial of late Mr. Samuel Nnebolise. I reported this threat to the present President General of Awka Development Union, Sir Tony Okechukwu. He promised to look into the matter. Nonetheless, the threat was actualized on 23rd May, 2013. My life is in danger because the youths and their leader are bent on killing me.
“I and those affected have reported the 23rd May attack to the Central Police Station, Awka, on the same day. We made written statements. But I am not sure if any arrest of the suspects has been made.
“The dissident Umudioka youths vowed that any deceased Catholic from Umudioka must be buried according to their local tradition. They resist the Catholic rite of burial, especially the dust-to-dust rites. This is against the Nigerian Constitution, which stipulates freedom of worship and practice for all Nigerians. Why should Umudioka Village Awka be an exemption? Even the Customary Marriage Rules and Burial Rites for Awka Town, 1996, Article 7, number C, sub-section (iii) stipulates: “Christian or Tradition burial will be according to one’s faith. Ceremonies combining both (Christian and Tradition) faiths are not allowed.”
The clergyman also said that Umudioka people refused to honour the invitation of the traditional ruler, Obi Nwosu who invited both parties to discuss the issue.
Umudioka people react
Speaking to Sunday Sun on the incident, the Chairman, Okorobia Umudioka and the man the Cathedral Administrator said led the youths on both attacks said “It was a Catholic burial. They wanted women to do what we do not want. That was all and we stopped the burial. It was the burial of Nwanna Nnebolise from Umudioka, an Ndichie, (meaning a revered elder)and he was not even a Christian, and I can tell you that. He was not a Christian. His children or his wife who he was not living in peace with when he was alive invited the church. This same woman was the one who left the man when he was sick and went for Omugwo. The in-laws sent the woman back and after three days the woman came back. The man died and the woman wanted to do things her own way forgetting that the village has its own norms, customs and traditions and she wanted to ignore them. So the elders in the village asked us not allow this to happen because it is a taboo.
“The church wanted to hire labourers to dig the grave in Umudioka and wanted her to pour sand into the grave after their normal Mass, but we told the church to do their normal Mass and allow us to bury our brother as we have been doing it before. This is a new introduction.”
Awka traditional ruler’s stand
Though Sunday Sun could not get the Awka monarch, Obi Nwosu to comment, but when the first attack took place, he expressed sadness over the incident and pleaded for understanding on both sides.
The royal father who is also a Knight of the Catholic Church, had wondered why the issue always came up at Catholic burials, noting that when other denominations, including the traditionalists perform their burials, nobody disturbs or dictates to them the manner in which it is done.
He noted that he has met with the Bishop twice on the issue and on one of such meetings, he went with all the indigenous Knights in the community, just as he has met with all indigenous priests of the community and they confirmed what the Bishop earlier told him that the dust-to-dust rites is not forced on anybody but only for Catholics who invite the church.
He noted that membership of any church is not forced on anybody and that being a member of a church, one has decided to abide by its traditions, hence it would be unfair for anybody to disturb the church from performing its duties on its members whether alive or dead.
He said, “I am advising my people, there is freedom of worship enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution. I will not support the Catholics to impose their laws on Awka people but they are free to practice their religion with their followers.
“To make sure that I did not misquote the Bishop or that the Bishop did not misquote me, I have gone to see the Bishop on two occasions. The first time I went to see him, I took all the knights, both the Knights of St. John and those of St. Mulumba. I took them, we sat together and we discussed with the Bishop.”
The President-General of Awka Community, Tony Okechukwu reacting to the development said, “We are taking care of the matter and we are making every effort to reconcile all the parties. We are on the verge of making peace and settling all matters. We are working together with our traditional ruler who you know is a peace loving man.”
Source: The Sun