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Christians in Nigeria on the brink  

03 February 2023

Violent persecution in the country could lead to humanitarian disaster, reports David Landrum

Open Doors

A burnt church in Nasarawa Gwom, in Jos, Plateau State

A burnt church in Nasarawa Gwom, in Jos, Plateau State

AT THE sound of gunshots, Grace* jumped up from where she was preparing dinner and ran to the window. Radicalised Fulani Islamists had come into the compound and were shooting into the air. Grace told her children to lie on the ground and start praying for mercy.

When the gunmen broke into their home, they dragged them all outside and demanded money. But, without any money to give them, Grace and her four children were forced to trek through the night from their home in Kaduna State into the bush. In the camp, young boys would terrorise Grace’s family and the others they had abducted by holding guns to their heads, shooting in the air to scare them.

The Fulani militants were demanding 20 million Nigerian Naira (just over £35,000) as a ransom to release the group they had kidnapped from the village. But, after enduring two weeks in the camp, Grace’s community still had not managed to raise the money; so the gunmen took Grace’s eldest son, Jethro away, along with five others.

Jethro’s father, who had been away when his family were taken, was faced with the horror of picking his son’s body up later. The Fulani had shot him in the head and chest. Grace discovered what had happened only when the Fulani men came back celebrating and chanting: “Allahu Akbar.” Eventually, after enduring another two weeks, the ransom was paid, and Grace and her three children were released.

WHILE this is a horrific ordeal, what we showed as we launched our annual World Watch List (WWL) in Parliament on 18 January, is that this kind of gratuitous violence is all too common in Nigeria. This country is ranked at number six on the WWL: an annual ranking system which shows where in the world Christians face the most extreme persecution. If violence was the only measure in WWL research, however, Nigeria would be the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian.

This year also marked 30 years of Open Doors’s producing the WWL. And what the heat-map of persecution over the past three decades shows in Africa is particularly alarming — especially when we see what is happening in Nigeria.

Of all the Christians killed for their faith last year in the countries that we track, 89 per cent were killed in Nigeria. Our research shows a 27-per-cent rise in the total recorded number of Christians being abducted for faith-related reasons. Of these abductions, 89 per cent were in Nigeria. Church leaders, women, and girls are often favoured targets.

I recently visited Plateau State, and I saw first-hand the human impact of the Islamist insurgency. I heard story after story of horrific violence, torture, rape, and murder. In a trauma centre supported by Open Doors, I listened to tear-filled testimonies of widowed women, and heard harrowing accounts from mutilated pastors whose congregations had been bombed and butchered.

In Benue State, I met scores of church leaders who recounted similar stories, and I visited a camp supported by Open Doors partners, in which more than 20,000 displaced Christians exist in appalling conditions, in constant fear of jihadist attacks on the camp. The experience was overwhelming at times. Although, through the Open Doors advocacy work, I would regard myself as being familiar with the facts of persecution, I found that the situation in Nigeria was far worse than I could have imagined.

WITH Christians rendered defenceless by increasingly complicit federal authorities — who are pointedly failing to protect Christian communities — such camps are spreading fast across Nigeria. Exploiting crime, corruption, and ethnic tensions, those perpetuating the violence are united by a common strategy that seeks to drive Christians from their homes and land to create a caliphate.

Nigerian Christians face violence from Fulani Militants in the Middle Belt, Boko Haram, and ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) in the north, and bandits throughout the border regions. This year, the terrorist attacks happened as far south as Ondo State, with 41 Christians murdered in one church on Pentecost.

Emboldened by the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the persecution of Christians is now expanding beyond Nigeria, and beyond the Islamist strongholds of Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Libya, and Algeria. Today, we see the terror replicated in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cameroon, Central African Republic, and Mozambique.

Unchecked, this increasingly co-ordinated strategy of murder, kidnap, rape, and intimidation to displace people has the potential to destabilise the whole Continent. While most secularised Western governments are reluctant to acknowledge the primarily religious nature of the violence, instead preferring to attribute it to a range of political, ethnic, criminal, or even ecological factors, the situation will continue to worsen.

As long as the problem is denied, a solution will not be found. And Nigeria, being the economic engine of Africa, is critical for any security solution. About 20 per cent of all Africans live in Nigeria, and, with the population set to double to more than 416 million by 2050, in the absence of a political will to face up to facts, the trajectory is clear.

The most recent report on Nigeria by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief was Nigeria: Unfolding genocide? published in June 2020. To avert the vast humanitarian disaster on the horizon, this question requires our urgent attention.

*Named changed for security reasons.

Dr David Landrum is d
irector of advocacy at Open Doors UK & Ireland

Open Doors 2023 World Watch List: www.opendoorsuk.org/persecution

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