February 1, 2021

What is happening to Nigeria’s Christians?

Vershal Hogan

President:  Keep in safety those who travel, and all who are in danger.
All:  Hear us good Lord.

Such is included in the Intercession in the Nigerian Book of Common Prayer. While similar prayers are common across Christian liturgies, for some in the West African nation they have taken on a more significant depth.

Nigeria leads the world in the abductions of Christians and has been listed by the U.S. State Department as one of the worst countries for religious freedom.  Two recent prominent kidnapping cases include Professor John Fatokun — who teaches computational mathematics at Anchor University in Lagos — and Bishop Moses Chikwe, the auxiliary bishop of Owerri archdiocese. Both were released unharmed after several days, a happy result that more than 3,500 Nigerian Christians didn’t get last year.



 

After his release, Fatokun reiterated his commitment as a Christian educator, and the goal to see his country improve for all. At a time when violence is on the rise, work to change the trajectory of history will be key.

“Despite the experience, my faith remains unshakable,” Fatokun told reporters today, according to Legit, a Nigerian news outlet. “We will continue to work, pray and raise godly men and women who are destined to change the narratives and make Nigeria a better place for the generations ahead.”

Nigeria is not only Africa’s most populated country, but also is its most Christian. Angelus News reports that 80 million people there are Christian:

According to the Pew Research Center, a staggering 89% of Nigerian Christians attend church services at least once a week, one of the highest shares in the world; in the U.S., by way of comparison, it’s about 40%.

 

Move around any Nigerian city, and you’ll see billboards advertising the “Church of Jesus Christ Militant” and the “Mighty Miracles of the Holy Ghost Temple,” and you’ll see sprawling megachurches dominating skylines.

 

Attend any Sunday Mass in the country, and you’ll wonder if you’re at a church or a daycare center, because young people are literally hanging from the rafters. Spend five minutes in casual conversation with any randomly chosen Nigerian Christian, and if you don’t hear at least one reference to God, Jesus, miracles, or the devil, you should play the lottery that day because your longshots are coming home.

So why are an average of 2,300 Nigerian Christians being killed each year, with that number reaching 3,530 in 2020? Christianity Today reports about Open Door’s annual report on the persecution of Christians, and 2020 was the first time Nigeria entered the top 10 countries where Christians are martyred — and it entered at No. 1.

During the (Open Doors) launch event, Curry interviewed Afordia, a Nigerian Christian health care worker whose husband was executed by Boko Haram. After cutting off communication networks in the couple’s village, the extremists rounded up the men and asked each one if they were a Muslim or an infidel.

 

“‘No, I am not an infidel or a Muslim, I am a Christian,’ my husband told them,” she said. “Then he knelt down on the side of the road, and prayed.”

Angelus News explains that at least part of the problem can be explained by cultural divides. The large Christian population is only half of the country, and there are lingering tensions from a 1960s attempt to secede by a largely Christian area during the Biafra war. Most of the remaining population in the country is Muslim.

As one Nigeria imam told me years ago, that makes the country “like Saudi Arabia and the Vatican rolled into one.”

 

For the most part, those Christians and Muslims live in genuine harmony, and stories of marriages and friendships across the religious lines are legion. Yet there is a segment of the Islamic population, like everywhere, which has become steadily radicalized over the past generation, most prominently producing the infamous Boko Haram terrorist group.

 

Boko Haram isn’t driven simply by anti-Christian animus, since they also routinely attack the institutions of a state they regard as corrupt and illegitimate. Nevertheless, the group is explicitly committed to turning Nigeria into an Islamic caliphate with no room for religious diversity, which makes Christians targets almost by definition.

Other issues, Angelus reports, often fracture along religious lines not because of religion but simply because the people on either side are the other religion — even if the matter is land disputes:

..as is the case in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region. There, Fulani herdsmen seeking new grazing land for their livestock, often due to desertification and soil degradation, routinely come into conflict with farmers, understandably motivated to protect their crops and incomes. For decades the Nigerian government has failed to resolve these disputes, often prompting people to take matters into their own hands.

 

There are also persistent ethnic fractures in Nigeria, often along tribal lines, and those ancient rivalries can easily make a difficult situation worse.

Political tensions in Nigeria have also been linked to the nervous religious atmosphere as well. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that after Roman Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Matthew Kukah delivered a message accusing the Nigerian President of nepotism — during which he said a non-Muslim would not have been allowed to get away with it — the Islamic Muslim Solidarity Forum made a statement referring to Christians in Nigeria as “guests.”



Despite the bishop’s criticism, the The Premium Times  reports that the President’s spokesman Garba Shehu weighed in on the situation:

Mr Shehu said: “under Nigeria’s Constitution, every citizen has the right to, among others, freedom of speech and expression, the right to own property and reside in any part of the country, and the right to move freely without any inhibitions,” in a bid to defend the cleric’s rights.

 

“Nigeria’s strength lies in its diversity. The right for all religions to co-exist is enshrined in this country’s Constitution. The duty of the government, more so, this democratic government, is to ensure that the Constitution is respected. But all must respect the rights and sensitivities of their fellow Nigerians.

 

“Father Kukah has greatly offended many with his controversial remarks against the government and the person of the President, with some even accusing him of voicing anti-Islamic rhetoric.

 

“On matters such as these, responsible leadership in any society must exercise restraint. Knee-jerk reactions will not only cause the fraying of enduring relationships, but also the evisceration of peaceful communities such as Sokoto, the headquarters of the Muslim community as beacon of pluralism and tolerance. The Sultanate has historically had good relations with followers of all faiths. That is why Father Kukah was received on his arrival in Sokoto with friendship and tolerance,” Mr Shehu said.

 

“Under our laws, groups or factions must not give quit notices, neither should they unilaterally sanction any perceived breaches. Where they occur, it is the courts of law that should adjudicate. Unilateral action is not the way to go.

 

“Groups such as the Muslim Solidarity Forum must be seen to share and uphold the country’s multi-religious principles. And individuals like Father Kukah must respect the feelings of his fellow Nigerians in his private and public utterances,” he added.

The situation on the ground is complex, and the sands may be shifting. At times when faith is the firmest thing they have, people of faith may have nowhere to turn except to the prayer book, and to their God:

President: Show Your pity on prisoners and refugees, and all who are in trouble.
All: Hear us good Lord.

 

President: Forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and turn their hearts.
All: Hear us good Lord.

 

President: Hear us as we remember those who have died in the faith of Christ, both those who have confessed the faith and those whose faith is known to You alone, and grant us with them a share in Your eternal kingdom.
All: Hear us good Lord.

 

President: Father, you hear those who pray in the name of Your Son, grant that what we have asked in faith we may obtain according to Your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
All: Amen.

 

President: For the peace that is from above, and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.
All: Lord have mercy.

 

President: For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of God’s holy Church, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord
All: Lord have mercy.

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