26 May 2021, The Tablet

Death toll escalates among Nigerian Christians

Death toll escalates among Nigerian Christians

Catholics at Mass at St Gabriel's, Abuja. Nigeria is becoming one of the most deadly countries in which to be a Christian.
Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

There has been a serious escalation in violence against Christians in Nigeria with thousands kidnapped and hundreds killed in just the last few months.

Multiple reports have recently come out detailing a still-worsening situation amongst Nigeria’s Christian population, especially in Muslim-dominated north of the country where Boko Harem continues to operate with relative impunity.

Nigerian NGO Intersociety, reports that the last four months, January to April, saw a dramatic escalation of violence, as Nigeria “lost no fewer than 1,470 Christians… the highest number recorded since 2014”. These finding were echoed by reports just published by both the US State Department and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) which describe Nigeria as a “country of particular concern for tolerating severe violations of religious freedom”. 

According to Intersociety, more than 2,200 Christians have been abducted this year, of whom 200 are already believed dead, with a further 800 murdered by Fulani militants, making Nigeria the most lethal country in which to be a Christian today.

The report details not only communal violence, but a specific targeting of Christian religious buildings and leaders, which the charity alleges have been systematically covered up by national and local government in Nigeria: “The Nigerian Government and Governments of the affected States have made several deliberate attempts to cover the egregious and grisly massacre of Christians in Nigeria by falsely labelling them as ‘herders-farmers clashes’, or attacks by “bandits”, or “killings that cut across Muslims and Christians”. 

As the figures suggest, militants from a Fulani background, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in West Africa, represent a growing threat alongside more well-known groups such as Boko Harem. According to the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Belief Fulani militants have adopted “a comparable strategy to Boko Haram and ISWAP [Islamic State West Africa Province], and demonstrated a clear intent to target Christians and potent symbols of Christian identity.”

The US State Department report quotes Nigerian Minister of Culture Lai Mohammed, who suggested that Boko Haram and ISIS fighters, “have started targeting Christians and Christian villages... to trigger a religious war and throw the nation into chaos”.

The US State Department also cites CAN president Reverend Samson Ayokunle, who warns his country is “under siege” by Boko Harem, Fulani militants and others groups who share “a goal to Islamise Nigeria”.

The USCIRF report also sounds the alarm on Nigeria’s strict blasphemy laws, with 12 northern Nigerian sates operating Sharia courts despite constitutional provisions making Nigeria a secular state and guaranteeing freedom of worship. USCIRF notes: “State-sanctioned Sharia courts handed down harsh sentences on individuals convicted of blasphemy including sentencing 22-year-old musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu to death, although a higher court later demanded Sharif-Aminu’s case to be retried. Government authorities also arrested prominent humanist activist Mubarak Bala, reportedly in relation to his expression of his humanist beliefs on social media. Bala continues to be detained without charge, and authorities have restricted his access to his legal team.”

Paul Robinson, chief executive of charity Release International, said: “These latest reports reinforce what Release has been saying for many years, that the world must wake up to what is happening in Nigeria.

“Boko Haram has publicly declared war on Christians and stated its aim to Islamise the whole of Nigeria. Fulani militants are killing even more Christians than Boko Haram fighters, and appear to be serving the same agenda.

“This latest dimension to the violence can no longer be described as simply herder-farmer clashes.

“These reports also reinforce what Release partners are saying – that the government of Nigeria is simply not doing enough to protect its Christian minority in the North against attack from religious extremists.”

Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali said “If Nigeria is to continue as a single entity, a concerted military and political effort has to be made to stop the depredations of so-called herders in the Middle Belt and Yoruba land.”

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