Christians in Nigeria today certainly need faith and hope as the nation unravels on all sides and the government seems to either not want to or is incapable of offering any response. While corruption, as well as rising oil prices and the consequences of climate change are felt nationwide in Nigeria as elsewhere, the growing power and influence of Islamist militant groups, as well as the widespread and growing targeting of Christians in the country, presents an urgent situation that demands our attention.
Boko Haram, its splinter group the Islamic State in West Africa Province (Iswap) and the militant Fulani Herdsmen all adopt similar strategies of an Islamist ideology where those who are “other” are to blame for their social and economic ills. The “other” includes Muslims who are not of their worldview, but primarily their target is Christians.
With easy recruitment from among the illiterate and poor Muslim youth, and a seemingly endless supply of sophisticated weapons and the economic resources to procure them, they savagely attack Christian-populated villages, shoot and use machetes to kill all in sight including children, kidnap and demand high ransoms, which even when paid do not assure safe release.
They often circulate menacing videos of beheadings, allow public lynching for supposed “blasphemy”, make travel by road and even by rail totally insecure, attack and burn churches and other Christian symbols of identity. The world has heard of the kidnapping of hundreds of girls and boys from secondary schools and the slaughter of more than 40 worshippers, with 74 in various stages of injuries, at St Francis Catholic Church in southwest Nigeria on Pentecost Sunday.
Before that the lynching and burning of a Christian student in Sokoto and another in Abuja just a few weeks ago caught public attention. However, these are only a very small fraction of what is happening on an almost daily basis across the northern states and other parts of Nigeria.
I visited northern Nigeria last March and, during my week there, a priest friend of mine, Fr Joseph Aketeh, was kidnapped and has since died in captivity. The following week two Christian villages in Southern Kaduna were attacked and hundreds killed or displaced. The bishop of that area, Kafanchan diocese, told me that the government had called a 24-hour curfew but there was not a security agent in sight.
The train I took from Kaduna to Abuja was attacked by Islamic insurgents just 10 days after I had travelled on it, with many people killed and more than 100 kidnapped, most of whom are still in captivity. Just last week Fr Vitus Borogo from Kaduna archdiocese was brutally killed while his brother and others with him were taken and are still in captivity. The following day Fr Christopher Odia was kidnapped and killed in Auchi.
As reported in a recent AMRI (Association of Leaders of Missionaries and Religious of Ireland) statement: “There is a perception that the Nigerian government is not doing enough to combat terrorism against Christians, that it is imposing an Islamic agenda on the entire country from the far north of Nigeria to the Atlantic, to make it an Islamic state. Many Nigerians believe that the present administration is aware of who is perpetuating the violence — Boko Haram, Fulani Herdsmen, Fulani Bandits, Islamic State West Africa Province — but slow to condemn and act against them. Even when some of these killers and kidnappers are arrested, they are usually freed sooner or later.”
Many believe security agencies are complicit with the bandits.
While insecurity and attacks by Islamic militants are now widespread, the persecution of Christians is felt particularly in the northern part of the country. President Muhammadu Buhari continues to make very obviously lopsided appointments to key and influential positions in the executive, judiciary, and legislative arms of government, as well as to all the security and service chiefs — almost all now being Muslim.
Political leadership, traditional leadership and even university and other influential appointments or positions in the northern states are controlled by the Muslim elite. While the growth of the church in some areas might suggest otherwise, the truth is that it has always been difficult to get land to build churches or schools, except perhaps in Christian-majority areas. In federal and state universities, where there are many mosques, to be permitted a place of Christian worship is a struggle.
There are still a number of Irish missionaries living and working in Nigeria and these, together with the local church, remain close to the people, sharing with them the daily threat of attack and kidnapping, comforting them in their times of sorrow, offering healthcare, education and pastoral presence.
Missionaries are also engaged in the very difficult challenge of inter-religious dialogue and in the promotion of justice and human rights, together with other peace-loving and committed Christians and Muslims. However, the cries of Christian peoples and their religious leaders go unheard or are rejected by the government as untrue, while the sense of ownership and control among the Muslim elite continues to grow.
Violence is “condemned”, but the reality that Christians are being routinely targeted is denied by the Nigerian administration. Similarly, in many other countries today Christians are ruthlessly targeted specifically because of their faith, a fact that should not continue to be ignored by Irish, EU and other governments.
Sr Kathleen McGarvey is Irish Provincial of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles