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The Slow-Motion Genocide of Nigeria’s Christians by Jonathon Van Maren

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The Slow-Motion Genocide of Nigeria’s Christians

A Christian prays in a church in Kaduna, in Nigeria’s Middle Belt.

Photo: Courtesy of ACN International.

At 3 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, May 30, the Fulani attack began. Wielding guns and machetes, the attackers swept into the villages of Ndobashi and Ekpufu, with the violence soon spreading to several neighboring Izi villages in Nigeria’s Benue State. Militants murdered men, women, and children without mercy. Some families—parents and children—were completely wiped out. Pregnant women were not spared. Villagers fled their homes and took refuge in the bush, returning to find burned homes and charred corpses. 

“Muslims burned many houses, more than 200 of them in a place called Nwori market,” wrote Rev. Sosthenes Obo after the attack. “They hacked almost 54 persons to death in that one village of Ndobashi Iseke (situated in Ado Local Government area of Benue State). They burned many houses inside the village to ashes and properties worth billions of naira [the Nigerian currency], churches, church generators, seats, Bibles, and song books. They thought they’d killed a Methodist pastor in the same village after they had dealt him several machete cuts, but God prevented his death with the help of medical doctors. They looted handsets, power banks, chargers, laptops, clothes, and many other things.”

The villagers were targeted because they were Christians—both Ndobashi and Ekpufu are home to Nigerian Reformed churches. Miraculously, both Reformed pastors survived the assault. Rev. Obo had just finished preparing for the morning church services and fled with his wife through a passageway in their house. She collapsed during their flight and began to cry out “Jesus, Jesus!” when the attackers overtook her. Strangely, the persecutors let her go. In the days that followed, several such stories surfaced—Christian victims calling on Jesus, and their attackers recoiling and allowing them to survive.

Rev. Obo and his wife escaped with their lives, but their house was looted. A purse, special reading glasses, clothing, large amounts of money, and other items were stolen; twenty-two bags of rice were burned. Video footage taken just after the attack shows a village utterly destroyed, with houses still smoldering and survivors walking about in a daze, assessing the damage, wearing whatever clothes they’d managed to pull on before they fled.

Between 117 and 136 people were killed in a single day. It was yet another attack in what long-time observers of violence against Christians in Nigeria are calling new heights of jihadist violence. Nearly half of Nigeria’s population identifies as Christian (over 95 million people out of 206 million). But since 2015, well over 12,000 Christians have been killed—with many more being wounded, forced from their homes, or simply vanishing entirely. Kidnapped women and girls are often forced into “marriages” with Muslim militants. Violence has driven thousands of Christians into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, with invaders occupying their ancestral homes. Perpetrators of these crimes are almost never punished, and persecution occurs with near impunity.

Some have begun to ask the question: Is a genocide unfolding in Nigeria? 

A key reason that the persecution of Christians in Nigeria receives less attention than violence elsewhere is that the situation there is so complex. Nigeria is a cobbled-together country of hundreds of ethnic groups and three major faiths—Islam, Christianity, and animism—jostle and overlap like tectonic plates, sending shockwaves throughout the region. Many Westerners will be primarily familiar with the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, which operates mainly out of bases on islands in Lake Chad in the northeast and is internationally infamous for kidnapping schoolgirls. While Boko Haram has undergone several splits and iterations, it has successfully achieved a military deadlock with the government in their war to destroy Christianity in Nigeria, not least due to the isolation of its encampments.

Less well-known are the religious motives of the Muslim Fulani herders, a considerable number of whom have formed armed militias. These are the Fulani who were profiled by the BBC in July 2021 and referred to as “Nigeria’s hipster herders—the funky Fulanis”; the BBC’s single oblique reference to the violence noted that: “Most only see the Fulani herders when they are marching their cattle across the country, which has become a deadly issue since 2017 as clashes between them and farmers over grazing land have killed thousands.”

A Fulani militant herdsman in Nigeria.

Photo: Public Domain.

There are some, in fact, who insist that attacks such as those suffered by Rev. Obo and Christians in the surrounding villages are all about clashes over pastures rather than religion, ignoring the fact that one civil liberties group estimates that nearly 3,500 Christians have been murdered in Nigeria since the beginning of 2021—nearly all of them by “extremist Fulani herdsmen.” In a mere 200 days of 2021, according to the same report, an additional 3,000 Christians have been kidnapped and an estimated 300 churches have been either attacked or forced to close. The complexity of these situations can be succinctly summarized: They are attacks on Christians by Muslims to effect the Islamization of Nigeria with the passive cooperation of the Nigerian government.

Despite this, there are many who claim that the widespread killings of Christians across Nigeria are not primarily due to religion, and that faith is simply one factor out of many. With hundreds of disparate ethnic groups, growing lawlessness and kidnapping for ransom, and tangles between Biafra protestors and police, it is easy for Western lawmakers responding to demands for action on persecution to insist that this is not primarily about Islamist violence directed at Christians, but another ethnic African land snarl too complicated to warrant any response and too bewildering to trigger a review of aid cheques to the government tolerating the persecution. Nigerian President Muhammad Buhari, of course, is eager to assure his Western counterparts that the mounting murders are merely local disputes, not a pattern of persecution. 

Buhari, not incidentally, is the son of a Fulani Muslim chieftain and has been stacking government posts with his Muslim allies for years. Observers have noted that at six years into his presidency, the escalating violence against Christians appears to have the implicit approval of Buhari’s government despite protestations to the contrary. The Islamization of Nigeria is assumed by many to be a political priority of Buhari, and the displacement of Christians by widespread violence allows their homes and territory to be occupied by Buhari’s co-religionists. Christians are being driven out of their communities, particularly in Nigeria’s north and middle belt bit by bit, and many of the villages are remaining abandoned. It has been called a “slow-motion genocide.”

As Open Doors summarized the situation: “The government seems unable or unwilling to protect its Christian citizens.”

The chaotic nature of the violence disguises the pattern. Alongside Boko Haram, Fulani militants, and a home-grown African Islamic State (IS) affiliate, there are the mercenaries who kidnap for money (often passing off their victims to Boko Haram to ransom), and petty criminals taking advantage of lawlessness for personal profit. However, everyone from activists to the Global Terrorism Database of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are clear that it is the Fulani militants that pose the greatest and consistently imminent threat to religious minorities.

But President Buhari is clever and plays to Western sensibilities. He insists that the violence that has permeated and escalated throughout his entire tenure against a specific subset of his citizenry is not a religious clash, but instead a climate change-fueled conflict over pastoral lands. Climate change, of course, can be primarily blamed on the industrial West. This allows Western leaders to continue jetting about the planet to discuss their pet issue while ignoring the plight of impoverished Christians being murdered by the Nigerian president’s co-religionists. The Biden State Department, ignoring the near-universal testimony of those on the ground in Nigeria, stated in its 2020 report on international religious freedom that the persecution of Christians was, in fact, a matter of climate change triggering violence between two socio-economic classes.

Marcela Szymanski, who has served as the Editor-in-Chief of the “Religious Freedom in the World” report of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need since 2015, is an expert on religious persecution and human rights violations, and she finds the argument that the killings in Nigeria are not primarily based on religion to be nonsense. As Szymanski told me in an interview:

In a country where two religions are almost 50/50 of the population and in large numbers, and where the government is led by the Fulani Muslims, and where the government forces always arrive late to the site of attack, and where the only strategy to protect Christian students from kidnapping is to send them back home with no education; when mostly (not only, but mostly) Christians are chased or murdered at night by attackers, leading them to abandon their homes, fields, shops, and schooling, leading to the rapid creation of an entire layer of population that is homeless, hungry, impoverished, and uneducated. … Then this is evidence that there is a government-approved strategy to eliminate religious plurality, as well as economic and educational equality in favor of one of the two majority religious groups. There is a government strategy to make Christians a minority. Strictly speaking, this matches the definition of genocide as per the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.

Szymanski has been tracking events in Nigeria for years, and she has little patience for the hair-splitting arguments used to deny that the systematic violence constitutes religious persecution. Those who claim that Christians are not targeted because they are not the only ones being killed, she noted, are missing the main point, which is that it is the beliefs of the perpetrators that prove the pattern. “When a terrorist in Germany rides his truck over people in a busy shopping street, he does not ask who is Christian, who is atheist, who is Hindu, or even Muslim, before running them over,” she told me. “He attacks because of what he believes; he believes they are all infidels by their behavior, or by their possessions, or by where they live, and deserve to die.”

“It is exactly the same in Nigeria,” Szymanski emphasized. She elaborated:

The attackers are bothered by the way their victims go about their lives: schools are not good, having a larger piece of land is not good, going to church is not good. The attacker does not care what his future victim believes, it only matters what he believes. Not acknowledging this truth means blaming the victim for irritating the attacker, the equivalent of the argument ‘you should not have gone out dressed like that’ thrown at rape victims. It is very clear that there is a strategy in place to eliminate the religious and cultural pluralism of Nigeria. These incidents remain 100% unpunished. There is very little international appetite to tackle it.

Rev. Johnnie Moore, a human rights activist who serves as the president of the Congress of Christian Leaders and authored The Next Jihad: Stop the Christian Genocide in Africa with Rabbi Abraham Cooper in 2020, is similarly frustrated by the lethargic international response. Moore has spent much time traveling in Nigeria and interviewing survivors, hearing their horror stories—including incidents of beheaded pastors and newborns shot at point-blank range. “The terrorists have every intention of killing every Christian they can and every Muslim who stands in their way, and they’ve said as much in a lot of statements put out to the press and videos released on the internet,” he told me. Moore believes that what is unfolding in Nigeria constitutes genocide.

“In most circumstances, the worst atrocities in human history have begun slowly, where the early warning signs were ignored and then all of a sudden the effects are exponential,” he explained. “The perpetrators—and it is a disparate network of various types of actors who may not be directly coordinating—have unifying principles motivating them to commit the same types of atrocities against the same types of victims. It is egregious, ongoing, and systematic.” 

This is almost precisely the same language used by Mark Lipdo, a human rights activist who, in 2006, founded a faith-based NGO called the Stefanos Foundation to assist persecuted Christians in Nigeria. In his essential 2015 book Killings in North and Central Nigeria: A Threat to Ethno-Religious Freedom and Democracy, Lipdo painstakingly lays out the tangled ethnic and religious history behind the ongoing conflicts and then spends hundreds of pages simply cataloging killings between 1980 and 2014 with dates, details, and devastating photographic evidence. It amounts to a damning and undeniable assessment of a systematic attempt to destroy religious minorities. Lipdo notes that for Islamists with expansionist aims, Nigeria’s democracy is seen merely as a tool to accomplish their aims before being dispensed with. 

According to Lipdo, growing up as a Christian in Nigeria means that violence is expected. It is a when rather than an if. Lipdo trained as an engineer, but the 2001 riots in Jos, a Middle Belt city of nearly a million people, changed things. Beginning on September 7 and lasting nearly two weeks, a wave of Muslim attacks on Christians resulted in nearly 1,000 deaths after some Christians protested the appointment of a Muslim politician as the local coordinator of the federal poverty alleviation program. Churches, cars, and people were torched; streets were barricaded; fifty thousand people were displaced; the military was deployed. The riots raged largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, which was transfixed by the events of 9/11 in New York City. For Lipdo, however, the events were connected.

“It was clear that the attack on our popular market in Jos, one of the biggest in West Africa, was intentionally done in the same vein,” he told me. “The terrorists were emboldened by what they saw going on around the world. I felt my faith was challenged, and I needed answers to the hate. I went into contemplation and devotion, and I was convinced that something needed to be done, or very soon Christians would be consumed by hate against Muslims. I was overwhelmed by hatred, but I knew if I allowed that to go on, I would never be able to win any Muslim to Christ.” 

Lipdo and his wife felt led in prayer to the life of the martyr St. Stephen, who was stoned to death by those who hated him for what he believed but responded to that hatred by praying in love for his persecutors. This example, says Lipdo, was the inspiration for the Stefanos Foundation. Christians needed to love their persecutors and pray that they might become Christians, too. The Church, he told me, had to prayerfully understand how to survive persecution while still fulfilling the Great Commission. Stefanos exists to serve Nigeria’s religious minorities in mitigating attacks, rehabilitating after violence has occurred, and assisting with resources and rebuilding. Lipdo regularly sends out photos and videos of the violence to his network of contacts on WhatsApp to get the word out and to provide evidence, yet again, of what is going on in his country.

“My work involves day-to-day decisions on how to help Christians survive this persecution from Islam,” he told me by phone. “Because there are a lot of attacks all over the place, we try to get information across to the international news. I try to get information out. When we receive intelligence on the ground of an intended attack on people or communities, we try to work with the existing security agencies, give them information, and try to help them mobilize protection for those targeted. When attacks happen, I try to make decisions to move ambulances to get those who are alive to treatment facilities and to get people to safe accommodation.” 

Lipdo also provides food and clothes to those who have been stripped and robbed and tries to persuade victims to return to their homes and rebuild. If that doesn’t happen, the terrorists win, and Islamization spreads. This encourages attacks and occupation. Many families, understandably, simply want to flee and find a place to live peacefully with their families. Lipdo does all this at great risk to himself—he is a foil to the aims of those who have proven, as he himself has so meticulously documented, that they are willing to kill to achieve their aims.

For those who wish to help, Lipdo has suggestions. First, he asks for the prayers of Christians worldwide. Prayer is the lifeline of the Nigerian churches; it has been the catalyst for many miracles; and it is the primary means for approaching God Himself. Second, the Stefanos Foundation and other NGOs on the ground in Nigeria are also always in need of financial donations, as they are working nonstop to provide for those affected by the violence—and many have a long road to recovery, rehabilitation, and rebuilding. And finally, voices in journalism, politics, and any other spheres of influence are much needed, as the plight of Nigeria’s Christians is too often dismissed by those who prefer to ignore its complexities or address the thorny spectre of Muslim violence. Lipdo and others work tirelessly to provide evidence to all those willing to see it and hear it.

It is difficult to get people to care. As one advocate working on the Nigerian file put it to me, when you talk about the persecution of Christians you must first assume that nobody cares what you’re talking about—and you must be creative to get people to pay attention. Don’t talk about Christians, she said; talk about women and children more than anyone else. Talk about refugees, talk about “regional instability,” talk about rape as a weapon of war and genocide—just don’t talk about dead Christians. The moment religion enters the picture, people suddenly become more concerned with climate change and the geopolitical intricacies of the slaughter rather than taking tangible steps to alleviate the violence. In one case, she actually heard someone invent a non-existent Christian militia (it was a spiritist group) to justify ignoring the problem of Muslim militias murdering Christians.

Just because there is no simple solution to what is unfolding in Nigeria doesn’t mean there are not real steps that can be taken in the short-term.

“I believe there are lots of things that can be done,” Rev. Johnnie Moore told me. “The British government gives about 800,000 pounds a day to Nigeria. The money that we’re giving to this country needs to have more strings attached to it. There’s not enough scrutiny. This could be leveraged to protect Christians and hold the government to account. The first step is an immediate evaluation of every dime being given to Nigeria by any country. Number two, we should sanction some of those involved in enabling the atrocities—the vast amounts of funds in Nigeria that are collected every year as ransoms. These are incentive structures that enable this to continue. Third, there’s a need for training for security forces. I would also like to see a strengthening of the NGOs so we could see independent reporting of the atrocities.”

There is much that can be done, but Western leaders must first face the facts on the ground and begin to act accordingly.

Time and again, as I spoke to activists, survivors, and experts, one theme came to the fore: Nigerian Christians have something to teach Western Christians about faith under fire.

“Indeed, the blood of the martyrs is also the seed of the church in Nigeria,” Rev. Sosthenes Obo observed after the attack on his village. “As the Muslims kill Christians, more and more people become Christians. Those who were already Christians but were not strong in the Lord have now been strengthened as a result of the persecutions. Shortly after the attack in the Izi area on June 13, 2021, the church was fully packed. Church people who had started backsliding showed up again.”

Persecution, in other words, is driving people not away from the church but to it. “Attendance of the Nigeria Reformed Church in Onyenu was usually at 90 or a little higher, but on that date the attendance stood at 188 people,” Rev. Obo said. “Newcomers and backsliders filled the church. People who regard the incident as the end of the age are flocking to the church, realizing that there is only safety and salvation in God through Christ. People are fleeing to God to save them and protect them. … God is at work, using His Word to work faith in the hearts of people.”

Immediately following the attack on the morning of May 30, Christians gathered together to worship. Each morning, members of the Reformed congregation meet together for prayer and Bible reading at around 5 a.m.; normally, they go about their work at 6 a.m. In the wake of the attack, however, many stayed at the church until noon. A week of mourning and fasting were observed, and only the most essential duties were attended to. While the Western mind might wonder at the lack of practicality, the persecuted Nigerians recognize that, ultimately, the source of their hope, comfort, and protection comes from God—and they prioritize accordingly.

Photo: Courtesy of Open Doors.

Indeed, while listening to Mark Lipdo explain that his goal was not only to help Christians survive but to win Muslim perpetrators to Christ by displaying love in the face of gruesome and intolerable violence, it is impossible not to be ashamed by the paltriness of one’s own convictions. In the post-Christian West, it is so easy to focus on resisting hedonism or materialism in our own communities—while Nigerian Christians like Mark Lipdo focus on carrying out the Great Commission amongst people committed to their extinction. They may need Western support, but we badly need their example.

As Rev. Johnnie Moore put it: “As a Christian meeting with these Nigerian Christians, I’m always struck by the fact that they’re willing to die for a faith that we in the West are barely willing to live for.”

Jonathon Van Maren has written for First Things, National Review, The American Conservative, and is a contributing editor to The European Conservative. His latest book is Patriots: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Pro-Life Movement.

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