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

by Daniel Philpott

August 29, 2018

How do Christians respond to violence in Nigeria? One of the Under Caesar's Sword researchers, Robert Dowd, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, documented Christian responses in Nigeria (find it in this just-published book of our scholars' findings). He focused mostly on responses to Boko Haram's violence and wrote his piece prior to the spike in violence committed by the Fulani herdsmen.

Some Christians have simply had to flee the violence, Dowd found, becoming internally displaced people or refugees. He was impressed, though, by how many adopted "strategies of association" through which they strengthened their position by building ties with those around them. Sometimes Christian pastors and other leaders would build relationships with sympathetic Muslim leaders, thus isolating Boko Haram. This strategy was used, for instance, by Archbishop Kaigama in Plateau State to attempt to stop the violence between Fulani herders and Christian farmers.  In some cases, Muslim leaders would hide Christians from other attackers. Christians even proclaimed forgiveness publicly in order to counter jihadi discourse. Christians have also appealed to the government to defeat militant violence and provide protection. They have also adopted more confrontational approaches of protest and bringing light to government failures through advocacy campaigns. In a small number of instances, Christians have taken up arms against militants.

While Christians have succeeded in implementing these strategies, especially in building ties with Muslims, persecution in Nigeria continues. Is there anything that Christians in the religiously freer world can do to help them? Yes:
  • Educate Christians in parishes and churches of all denominations about the persecution of Christians in Nigeria and elsewhere. Under Caesar's Sword offers materials for educational efforts, a documentary film to show audiences, and a report with a section on Sub-Saharan Africa that includes Nigeria.

  • Encourage the U.S. government to give concerted public attention to the atrocities in Nigeria. As recommended by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the U.S. State Department should declare Nigeria a "Country of Particular Concern" under the guidelines of the International Religious Freedom Act.

  • Lobby the U.S. government to help train and educate police and security units in Nigeria in responding to sectarian violence and terrorism.

  • Lobby the U.S. government to pressure and encourage the Nigerian government to promote religious freedom, including encouraging northern states to curb sharia laws and restrictions that conflict with the constitution.

  • Lobby the U.S. government to pressure and encourage the Nigerian government to enforce existing land tenure laws that would regulate the relations between herders and farmers, and where those laws are inadequate, revise laws to better accommodate the needs of both herders and farmers. 

  • Encourage religious leaders, including ones within transnational Church and denominational structures, to engage actively in peacebuilding and reconciliation activities at the grass roots and at the level of civil society.

  • Most importantly, pray for persecuted Christians in Nigeria and around the world.
Through measures such as these, Christians may heed the words of the Letter to the Hebrews: "Be mindful of prisoners as if sharing their imprisonment, and of the ill-treated as of yourselves, for you also are in the body."

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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