Christian unity in Nigeria suffered a blow when the nation's Catholic leaders indefinitely suspended relations with the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN)—the first split in the umbrella body's nearly 40 years of existence.

Catholic and Protestant churches formed the association to promote Christian unity and to speak with one voice on national issues. But the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria—the largest of CAN's five blocs—said it was pulling out because of president Ayo Oritsejafor's leadership. Catholic leaders believe the Pentecostal pastor has made CAN too cozy with the government and too confrontational with Muslims (in response to continuing attacks on Christians).

In a letter listing their grievances, Nigeria's bishops alleged that CAN was "being dragged into partisan politics, thereby compromising its ability to play its true role as conscience of the nation and voice of the voiceless." They also alleged that CAN's interfaith mission was "not given a priority attention to promote peace and unity in the nation," but instead CAN was being used as "an army put in place to defend Christians against Muslims."

The bishops will vote on whether to make the withdrawal permanent.

When founded in 1976, CAN comprised only the Catholic Secretariat and the Christian Council of Churches (CCC). It later expanded to include the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, the Evangelical Fellowship of West Africa, and the Organization of African Instituted Churches.

Catholics or CCC Protestants stayed in charge until 2010, when Oritsejafor won a contested election to become the first Pentecostal leader.

Since then, Catholic bishops have been increasingly uncomfortable with him. They accuse him of personal opulence and inappropriate public comments on national issues.

Things deteriorated this past November, when Oritsejafor received a multimillion-dollar private jet from unnamed members of his church. Some defended the jet as essential to the travel required by his ministry; others criticized it as a bad pastoral example when half of Nigerians still live on less than US$1 per day.

The Catholic bishops frowned at the gift, even insinuating that President Goodluck Jonathan, who belongs to Oritsejafor's tribe, facilitated the gift and is backing Oritsejafor in his bid for re-election this July.

Catholic leaders have pressed Jonathan's government to dialogue with Boko Haram, the Islamist sect responsible for violence in northern states that has killed hundreds of Christians. Oritsejafor views the group as terrorists that should be crushed by Nigeria's military.

Oritsejafor told CT he declines comment "so as not to further inflame passions." CAN's leadership council expressed its confidence in Oritsejafor in late January.

Sunny Oibe, spokesman for CAN's northern division, defended Oritsejafor's leadership and accused Catholics of arrogance. "They don't want to be under anybody, but they want everybody to be under them," he said. "It doesn't work like that, because there is no seniority in CAN."

Magnus Atilade, chairman of CAN's southwest division, is more wistful. "It is an unfortunate development," he said. "The motive for the formation of CAN was for all to be one. That is in danger now. [Division] can never make us stronger."

Evangelical leaders share his concern that the split will hamper efforts to counter Boko Haram.

"We need all Christians on board to fight the forces against Christianity in Nigeria," said Gideon Para-Mallam, regional secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. "This [split] makes it harder for us to pressure the government to clamp down."

Reuben Adebayo, general secretary of the Nigeria Evangelical Fellowship, agreed. "We must resolve these differences as soon as possible, because it is a massive setback," he said. "We need everyone on the ship to curb all the challenges facing us together."

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