A Nigerian minister has said his time in Northern Ireland has made him more determined to defend his home country from what he sees as creeping liberalisation of church and culture.
Reverend George Okikiolu has been doing outreach work at St Jude’s on the Ormeau Road in south Belfast since 2015 – a move which was believed to have made him the first African employee of the Church of Ireland in Belfast.
His contract had been due to run out, but he has now signed a new one, extending his hours and keeping him in the Province for at least another three years.
He spoke to the News Letter about his impressions of the Province, and what it has taught him.
“My view of Northern Ireland has changed – not just Northern Ireland,” he said.
“In the last few years so many things have happened in the West.
“In the Republic of Ireland, just a few years after we talked in 2015, they’ve signed so many laws [on abortion and gay marriage] which affect Christian belief in this country.
“I know the pressure is on Northern Ireland. If in Scotland they have gone in that direction, the Republic, England, you can understand that there’ll be a lot of pressure on Northern Ireland.
“But so far, we give praise to God that Northern Ireland has not yielded to the pressures around her.”
Rev Okikiolu said that not only has the general culture become more liberal, but “we see strains like that happening in religion”.
His very conservative stance is not unusual in the Church of Nigeria, into which he was ordained.
But it puts him very starkly at odds with many clergy in the Church of Ireland – part of the same Anglican communion – who in recent years have come out strongly in support of things like gay marriage.
For example the global Anglican conference of 2020 in Lambeth is the subject of a boycott, backed by – among others – archbishop of Nigeria Nicholas Okoh, due to what he saw as an increasingly permissive stance on homosexuality. By contrast Irish archbishop Richard Clarke has not struck such a tone on gay issues; for instance in December he attended an event in his own Armagh diocese aimed at fostering support for “LGBTQ+ children”.
Whilst he hailed “the Gospel that has been brought to us by faithful Christians from the West”, he is sad to see now “people here in the West losing that same faith – that is disturbing”.
“People are tending to compromise the Gospel. It makes me more concerned that it does not happen in Nigeria,” he said.
He also spoke about sharing the news of the Ashers case with his friends back home.
“Many people in Nigeria just think it is crazy,” he said.
“How could anybody be subjected against his will?
“You talk about human rights in a civilised country, and then you find yourself in a situation whereby you don’t have a right to free religion or to exercise your mind, your decision, in a case like that.
“They were surprised and shocked. Because that would not happen in my country.
“When eventually there was victory, everybody was happy.”
Rev Okikiolu was speaking as global oppression of Christians becomes a hot topic.
The start of the year saw the commissioning of a review into worldwide Christian oppression by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
So does Rev Okikiolu see NI Christians as persecuted?
He highlighted the group Boko Haram which has carried out attacks against Christians in north Nigeria.
“We still have physical persecution of Christians.
“But in Northern Ireland there is nothing like that. Rather, if you look at the Ashers bakery case and all other things, it’d be more in a different way. When you talk about persecution here in the West, maybe not physical perseuction, but persecution comes in so many ways.
“People suffer for their faith here in the West. But they’re encouraged to keep going. There is hope – there is hope for every Christian here in the Province.”
READ THE INTERVIEW THE NEWS LETTER DID IN 2015, where Rev Okikiolu speaks of the irony of an African travelling to the UK to help convert its inhabitants