With every passing year, the body count grows larger, and tales of violence — rapes, beheadings, mutilations, kidnappings, torching of homes and fields — become more gruesome.
Such is the nature of what some experts call a “slow-motion war” being waged against Christians in Nigeria.
‘Giant of Africa’
Even though the population of Nigeria — Africa’s most populous and economically important country — is almost evenly split between adherents of the Christian and Muslim faiths, Nigerian Christians are subjected to far more violence that is directly related to their faith, according to a recent report published by the Family Research Council.
FRC reports that more than 12,000 Christians have been killed in the last five years — 1,202 of them just in the first half of 2020. The recent escalation is evident in headlines from Christian persecution-monitors like Morning Star News:
- May 29: “Christians killed in Kaduna State, Nigeria, as herdsmen threaten kidnapped missionary. Fulanis demand either conversion to Islam or ransom for abducted pastor’s release.”
- June 3: “Civilians apprehend Muslim Fulani suspects in killing of five Christians in Nigeria. Assailants shoot dead store owner, four others.”
- June 9: “Nine Christians killed in gun and machete attack in North-Central Nigeria. Seven others kidnapped.”
- July 22: “Muslim Fulani herdsmen kill 11 Christians in attack in North-Central Nigeria. More than 50 members of Baptist, Catholic and ECWA churches slain since June 12.”
- July 23: “Islamic extremist militants in Nigeria execute five men as warning to Christians, video shows. Three Christians among those killed.”
- July 28: “Pastor, 5-year-old boy among 10 Christians killed in herdsmen attacks in Nigeria. Residents in southern Kaduna State terrorized.”
“Nigeria is actually the bull’s-eye of Christian persecution in the world, but few are aware of it,” International Christian Concern reports.
“Hundreds of thousands of Christians have lost everything and are living as refugees.”
ICC reports that Christian farming villages are repeatedly attacked and tens of thousands have died during the past 20 years.
While the source of conflicts is complex, tribal and historical, religious freedom advocates are adamant that while some Muslim Nigerians also are suffering from widespread violence, it is the Christians who are bearing the brunt of violence. Militant attackers seem to more openly affiliate with radical Islamists who seek to kill Christians or force them to convert to Islam.
Role of Islamist militants
Two main groups of Islamic extremists are responsible for most Nigerian Christian bloodshed, according to Open Doors USA’s World Watch List 2020: Boko Haram and Hausa-Fulani militant herdsmen.
“Christians in the northern region and in the Middle Belt suffer from violence perpetrated by Islamic extremist groups,” Open Doors states. “Such violence often results in loss of life, physical injury, as well as loss of property.
“As a result of the violence, Christians are also being dispossessed of their land and means of livelihood — and Christians with a Muslim background also face rejection from their own families.”
Whether Christians are being targeted primarily because of their faith or are merely caught up in tribal and territorial disputes is the subject of disagreement among local and international governments.
In its “Nigeria 2019 Religious Freedom Report,” the U.S. Department of State painted a complicated picture of a country wracked by deadly conflict:
“According to local and international media, in May the discovery of two dead boys at the border between a Christian village and a Hausa Muslim community in Plateau state sparked ethnic-based riots against Hausas, resulting in from five to as many as 30 deaths.
“In August and September, local media reported [that] armed, ethnic Igbo Christian criminal gang members posing as Fulani Muslim herdsmen killed two priests … in an attempt to incite religious conflict. According to international media, on April 14, Muslim Fulani herdsmen killed 17 Christians who had gathered after a baby dedication at a Baptist church … including the mother of the child.”
While refraining from calling violence against Nigerian Christians state-
sponsored persecution, the State Department did place Nigeria on the Special Watch List last year for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
International attempts to straddle the fence rather than taking direct action frustrate Lela Gilbert, who authored the recent FRC report. Gilbert predicts that the world will one day soon recognize the current Christian persecution in Nigeria as a genocide, but by then it will be too late.
‘We remember Rwanda’
“All too well we remember Rwanda, where we failed to stop a genocide in which one million were slaughtered. Not too long ago, we finally recognized that a genocide took place in Iraq — several years too late. May this not happen again,” she wrote. “May our international Christian communities continue to work together to inspire and cajole our governments to bring this terrible carnage to an end — once and for all. And may our prayers — as well as demands — continue for immediate international action to stop the bloodshed.”
Nigerian Christians say genocide building in their country while world looks the other way
During hurricane season in Alabama, TV meteorologists often refer to the “Butterfly Effect,” a chaos theory example of how a butterfly flapping its wings off the coast of Africa can set off a chain of events leading to a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.
The current humanitarian crisis buffeting Nigeria — Africa’s largest nation — is nothing so benign, and religious freedom experts say other countries would do well to pay attention before the ill winds blow their way.
Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed in Nigeria, home to the world’s sixth-largest Christian and fifth-largest Muslim populations. Still, the West African country has emerged as a Ground Zero of Christian persecution.
Despite their roughly equal populations, Nigerian Christians are being targeted more and more frequently and with savage violence by radical Islamist groups.
Religious freedom advocates say little attention has been paid to the carnage outside of religious news media, and they want the rest of the world to wake up to the building storm of Christian genocide.
“This is a genocide in the making, and we need to stop it before it’s too late,” said Lela Gilbert, a senior fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council and a fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
“What’s going on in Nigeria is uniquely horrifying,” Gilbert said. “It is a bloodbath. This is real, literal massacres. Not just with guns but with machetes. It’s increasing. It’s getting worse. It’s an emergency.”
In a July report she wrote for the FRC — “The Crisis of Christian Persecution in Nigeria” — Gilbert described a “horrifying acceleration” of murders, rapes, mutilations and kidnappings.
More than 1,200 Nigerian Christians have been killed in just the first half of 2020, Gilbert wrote, adding, “This is in addition to 11,000 Christians who have been killed since June 2015.”
July especially bloody
As awful as those numbers are, the second half of 2020 is shaping up to be just as bad for Nigerian Christians.
A report issued July 22 by Lord David Alton, a former member of the British Parliament and cofounder of the nonpartisan Movement for Christian Democracy, said that at least 27 people were killed and dozens injured within a 24-hour period in several separate attacks staged between July 19 and 20.
Despite the obviously escalating carnage, the world is largely turning a deaf ear to Nigerian Christians’ cry for help, religious freedom advocates say.
That inattention serves to embolden the attackers, as indicated in a July 22 video posted on YouTube in which Islamic extremists executed five blindfolded, kneeling Nigerian men after this announcement:
“This is a message to all those being used by infidels to convert Muslims to Christianity,” one of the executioners says in the Hausa language, translated by Morning Star News, a news service focusing on Christian persecution. “We want you out there to understand that those of you being used to convert Muslims to Christianity are only being used for selfish purposes.
“And that is the reason whenever we capture you, they don’t care to rescue you or work towards securing your release from us; and this is because they don’t need you or value your lives. We, therefore, call on you to return to Allah by becoming Muslims. We shall continue to block all routes [highways] you travel.
“If you don’t heed our warning, the fate of these five individuals will be your fate.”
Gilbert’s frustration about the inattention and resultant inaction at an international level is evident in both her report and her recent interview with TAB Media.
Gilbert credited the current White House administration with being “genuinely concerned” about the situation.
“But time and again, when proposals for specific actions and constructive projects are discussed and proposed, they seem to vanish into thin air, too often somewhere in the U.S. State Department’s massive bureaucracy,” she said.
“Of course, at least part of this has to do with predictable partisan sensitivities,” Gilbert added, “and particularly during a highly polarized political atmosphere, which is also complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
FAST FACTS – Christians in Nigeria
- 80 million Nigerians are Christian, making it the country with the world’s sixth-largest Christian population.
- Muslims and Christians are almost equally represented in Nigeria, although the country’s most powerful political figures claim affiliation with Islam.
- Religious identity tends to be regional, with Islam dominating the north of the country and Christianity predominant in the south.
- 14 million Nigerian Christians are Baptist.
- Baptists have been in Nigeria since 1850, when the first missionary was sent by the Southern Baptist Convention.
- Most Nigerian Baptists belong to churches under the Nigerian Baptist Convention, formed in 1914 as an outgrowth of SBC missionary work. NBC operates 10 theological training centers, as well as schools and hospitals.