Part 1: Persecution of Christiansin Nigeria

by Daniel Philpott

August 23, 2018

Over the past four years, the Under Caesar's Sword project has carried out a systematic global investigation of how Christians respond to persecution. A team of seventeen world class scholars of Christianity has traveled to many of the world's worst sites of persecution to find out what Christians do when they are under fire. And, how can the rest of the world stand in solidarity with them?

Watching the results come in, I was floored again and again to hear of persecution whose existence or extent I had not known of. Places that don't make major headlines in the West, yet where killings, attacks, the burning of churches, and the displacement of Christians occur on the scale of many thousands. I learned of pograms in India, mass flight from Egypt, near extinction in Turkey, and genocide in the Middle East. One of the most stunning of these revelations was Nigeria.

Sure, I had heard of Boko Haram, the infamous Muslim terrorist group in Northern Nigeria whose name means, "Western education is a sin," but I had not known that since 2009, Boko Haram has destroyed over 200 churches, displaced nearly two million people, killed at least 20,000 people, created over 200,000 refugees, and kidnapped hundreds, including many women whom it has made sex slaves. While Boko Haram has attacked and killed both Muslims and Christians, Christians are disproportionately represented among these many victims, and, of course, explicitly targeted. In 2013, it is estimated, more Christians were killed as a result of persecution in Northern Nigeria than in the rest of the world combined. Why is this so little known among Christians in the West?

The population of Nigeria is divided roughly in half between Christians and traditional believers concentrated in the South and Muslims living mostly in the northern half of the country.  In northern Nigeria, where Christians are a small minority among Muslims, their lives are impacted by the establishment of sharia law in 12 states (out of a total of 36 states in Nigeria). Sharia courts and sharia law are nothing new in Nigeria, dating back to before the country's independence in 1960. Since, 1999, however, when Nigeria established democracy and civilian rule, these states have expanded the reach of sharia law through measures that do not sit well with the constitution and that violate religious freedom. They have put into place penal codes that include amputation, flogging, and death by stoning. No stoning sentences have been carried out, though amputations and floggings have taken place. They have regulated religion more and more strictly, often through bureaus of religious affairs. They restrict dress, speech, and behavior, often disproportionately towards women and the poor and in many cases on non-Muslims. Five states have formed police units called Hisbah to enforce this law. Tensions over these laws and over incidents evoked by an atmosphere of enforced conformity with Islam have touched off violent riots.  A report published in 2004 by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom claimed that violence between Muslims and Christians had taken some 10,000 lives since 1999.  This time period predates the creation of Boko Haram.

Much more recently and apart from Boko Haram operations, reports have revealed large death tolls of Christians at the hands of Muslim Fulani herdsmen in the states of Kaduna, Benue, Plateau, Taraba, Adamawa, Kwara, Borno, and Zamfara. Since this past January, over 6,000 Christians, most them women, children, and elderly, have died in raids and other attacks. In 2015, there were 4,028 killings and 198 church attacks, nearly double those of the previous year. The attacks increased again in 2016 and continued into 2017.

To be sure, this violence has causes besides religion. Tensions go back at least two centuries between the Fulanis, a semi-nomadic people in West and Central Africa who migrate across vast areas with their vast herds of animals, and the settled farmers who are threatened by the grazing.  Lately, clashes have been exasperated by global warming, which has created deserts and forced the Fulanis southward.

The religious dimension, though, is unmistakable and has been growing. The Fulani herdsmen, who make up most of the perpetrators of the attacks, are Muslim, while most of their farmer victims are Christians. The assailantshave started to attack religious structures and services, including destroying churches, mounting raids on Mass and worship services, killing priests, and building mosques in the ruins. The violence continues; many Christians criticize Nigeria's president, Muhammadu Buhari, who is a Fulani, for doing little to nothing to stop it.

(Part 2: How do Christians in Nigeria respond to persecution?)

Daniel Philpott is a professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.  Philpott specializes in the relationship between religion and politics and Catholicism's contributions to freedom and democracy.

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