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A Systemic Persecution of Christians in Nigeria: A “Slow-Motion War”?

Nigeria has, since the dawn of the twenty-first century, earned an unfortunate reputation of being a country with an alarming record of religiously-related violence. It has, in recent years recorded persistently verified reports of murders, rapes, mutilations, and kidnapping of people, especially Christians. The Church in Nigeria today is faced with the challenge of a systematic persecution with many Christians living under constant pressure because of their faith. Christians in Nigeria are no strangers to persecution, most especially, in the Muslim-dominated Northern and Middle Belt regions that are the frequent targets of militant groups like Boko Haram and radical Fulani herdsmen. Boko Haram has been operating in Nigeria since 2009. This group, in its opinion, is out to rid Nigeria of all Western education and influence, of which they think Christianity is a huge part. They also seek to create an Islamic caliphate in the North-Eastern part of the country.

Fulani herdsmen are mostly Muslims who make regular journeys with their cattle to pastures down South of Nigeria – an area mostly dominated by Christians. They are a hostile group that attacks mostly Christian farming communities, especially, in the Middle Belt of Nigeria. It is instructive to point out that the Middle is one of the most fertile and healthy land in the country and has the potential to grow immense amounts of food. Unfortunately, as a result of attacks by the Fulani herdsmen, which always come in form of abductions and killings of the farmers have led tens of thousands of Christian farmers and their families displaced. In a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent nonprofit organization, with the farmer/herder conflicts in the country, an estimated 2,500 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced in 2016. The relationships between farming communities and herders have become increasingly violent, with over 8,000 people killed since 2011 and more than 200,000 displaced. A July 15, 2020 headline also reports that 1,202 Nigerian Christians were killed in the first six months of 2020. This is in addition to 11,000 Christians who have been killed since June 2015. Such violence has reached a point at which expert observers and analysts are warning of a progressive genocide — a “slow-motion war” specifically targeting Christians across Africa’s largest and most economically powerful nation.

This also has a very complex effect on the socio-economic and security situation of the country. When the farmers are pushed off of their lands, they are forced to live with relatives, friends, or in Internally Displaced People’s Camps (IDPC). Without the access to their land, they no longer have the ability to grow food to sustain themselves and their families. It is also hurting the larger community as a whole as there are known food shortages throughout Northern Nigeria. According to the Institute for Security Studies, insecurity still remains one of Nigeria’s biggest challenges. Across Nigeria, millions of Christians are living in fear because of the growing attacks by Fulani armed men or cattle herders from the Fulani ethnic group. Throughout the country, the Nigerians face a rising tide of violence that has left places of worship burnt, some families torn apart, and some girls still held captive by terrorists. On 14th April, 2014, 276 female students, mostly Christians, were kidnapped from a secondary school in the town of Chibok in Borno State, responsibility that was claimed by Boko Haram. This sparked ♯BringBackOurGirls, an international campaign group that stands strongly for the release of the girls. Today the best-known victim of the Boko Haram faction ISIS-WA is Leah Sharibu, a Christian schoolgirl and one of 110 young schoolgirls kidnapped in 2018 during an attack on Government Girl Science and Technical School, Dapchi, Yobe State, Nigeria. While five of the students were reported killed in the abduction, 104 girls were released to their families except Leah who was just 14 years old when abducted. Today she remains in captivity because she refused to renounce her Christian faith.

Christian religious communities are also being specifically targeted. Many Christians have been hacked to death by Islamic fundamentalists. It is no news that the fanatics are so mindless that they not only killed Christians in their scores, but callously burn down churches and Christian homes. Numerous incidents of such violence have not only resulted in the wanton loss of lives and property, but also inflicted pain and suffering on individuals and communities as well as undermined the fabric of the society. It is unfortunate to point out that Christians in Nigeria have been the victims of an escalating series of attacks, including kidnappings for ransom, priests and nuns inclusive. A good example of this could be seen in the attacks on Good Shepherd Major Seminary, Kaduna when on the 8th January 2020, four Catholic seminarians were abducted by gunmen from the Seminary. Three of them were later released, but one, in person of Michael Nnadi, (18 years), was killed because he professed his faith even in captivity, according to a confessional statement by one of the suspects. With the different attacks on the Church in the present age, we can say the future of the church in Nigeria is at stake. Although Nigeria is officially not at war, what the church is witnessing is tantamount to a declaration of war against Christians.

As a result of the different attacks, in the early 2020, Nigeria was added with Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan on the US Department of State’s Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list, which names and shames governments which have “engaged in or tolerated ‘systematic, ongoing, and violations of religious freedom.’” Religious fanaticism which had triggered mindless blood-letting and wanton destruction of property and human lives is becoming increasingly a negative factor in the Nigerian nation. It is one of the biggest human rights and security issues in the country. While calling on the international community to help Nigeria in its fight against insecurity and terrorist attacks, the Catholic Bishops states: “The level of insecurity in Nigeria today is such that whether at home or on the road, most Nigerians, in all parts of the country, live in fear; the repeated barbaric executions of Christians by the Boko Haram insurgents and the incessant cases of kidnapping for reasons linked to the same group and other terrorists have traumatized many citizens,” (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, Feb. 26, 2020).

Christian persecution is a paradox in a secular nation like Nigeria that gives room for religious freedom in her constitution (cf. Article 38), and a section that makes provisions for the protection of religious freedom and prohibiting religious discrimination, (cf. Article 15 (2), of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended). Religious freedom, like all freedoms of thought and expression, is inherent. A lack of religious freedom anywhere in the world is an outright denial of God-given human freedom. Freedom of religion, like all freedoms of thought and expression, is inherent. Our beliefs help define who we are and serve as a foundation for what we contribute to our societies. Notwithstanding the legal framework that protects religious freedom, the daily abuse of religious freedom in the country is contemptible. This is against the teaching of the Church which places premium on human life and abhors every offence and crime against humanity: “Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction,…whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children;… all these and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator” (Gaudium et Spes, 27).

In conclusion, the systemic attack on Christians in Nigeria brings to light the disastrous leadership of Nigeria which continually fail to protect and defend millions citizens of the country, most especially, the innocent Christian women, men, and children. No responsible government permits certain citizens to be treated badly, because of their faith. Every human person is created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27) and thereby endowed with dignity. The promotion and preservation of this dignity could be seen in respect of individuals’ fundamental rights. Hence, the Nigerian government and the government of other warring nations have the responsibility to protect the rights of the citizens, for the human person is the moral vision of any society.