In recent months, hundreds of lives have been lost in southern Kaduna State in central Nigeria as a result of violence pitting nomadic ranchers against local farmers. As it happens, the vast majority of those ranchers are Muslim and the farmers Christian, so inevitably the situation has a clear religious dimension.
Nigeria is the world’s largest mixed Muslim/Christian country, with a population of around 190 million almost evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. As an imam in Abuja, the national capital, once told me, it’s like the Vatican and Saudi Arabia rolled into one.
Although the Catholic church estimated in December that more than 800 people had died in the Kaduna clashes, the government officially pegs the total much lower. Government officials have also tried to insist there’s no religious dimension to the conflict, suggesting it’s largely about tensions between the ethnically Fulani ranchers and the patchwork of small tribal groups that farm the region.
Try telling that, however, to Christian farmers who’ve watched their villages burn down while Fulani militants shout Allahu Akbar, wave Islamic flags, and vow to drive infidels from the area.
The thing about Nigeria, of course, is that although the isolated farming communities in Kaduna may be largely powerless, Christians overall aren’t. They’re half the country, and there are plenty of successful Christian entrepreneurs, politicians, and other professionals.
If they want to, they’re more than capable of fighting back.
This past Saturday, two Fulani herdsmen were killed in southern Kaduna in apparent retaliation for the recent bouts of violence, and many observers worry it could be a harbinger of a wider conflict.
In June 2015, my colleague Inés San Martín and I were in a different part of Nigeria, in Plateau State to the east, where similar conflicts between Muslim ranchers and Christian farmers have waxed and waned for decades.
There too, victims make no bones about the religious dimension of the conflict.
“The real issue is a religious crisis,” said Reverend Dauda Musa Choia, chairman of the Church of Christ in Nigeria, arguing that Muslim members of other ethnic groups have joined the Fulani militants in attacking Christian targets.
Here’s another point on which these Nigerian Christians tend to agree: They’re tired of turning the other cheek, and are increasingly ready to fight fire with fire.
When I asked a Christian attorney named Dalyop Salomon, who represents the families of many victims in Plateau State, why they don’t strike back at their attackers, here was his answer:
“We don’t have the weapons to fight back,” he said. “If we had them, and there’s a law that warrants us the right to have weapons, we would fight.”
Salomon said Christians in the region want “international bodies to issue a charter or a declaration so that people who can’t enjoy government protection should be allowed to defend themselves by purchasing weapons. We would always be on the defensive side,” he said, because “Christians are always the victims.”
A victim of the violence named Dalyop Davou Jugu had much the same sense of things.
“I don’t know why our religious leaders here are teaching us that we should not fight,” he said. “[They say] we should not do anything and that this is the practice of our religion, [but I believe] that we should defend ourselves.”
All this adds up to another reason why mounting anti-Christian persecution should be of concern.
Granted, it should be enough that it’s a question of human rights violations on a massive scale, of defending religious freedom and freedom of conscience, and, for Christians in particular, of being concerned with our sisters and brothers in the faith.
If that’s not enough, it’s also an issue of anti-terrorism strategy, since if Christians and other religious minorities can be targeted with impunity in various parts of the world, it emboldens radicals, destabilizes regions, and makes the world a more dangerous place.
What Nigeria illustrates, however, is yet another motive to take anti-Christian persecution seriously: There are parts of the world where this violence occurs and Christians aren’t a tiny cowering flock, just hoping for the storm to pass. They have both numbers and resources, and the longer this goes on, the less likely they are to turn the other cheek.
We’ve already had proof of the point in the Central African Republic, where a Christian majority ran out of patience and organized themselves into militias, triggering a cycle of bloody fighting that so far has left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
Granted, the Central African Republic is a small, landlocked nation of fewer than five million people. If something similar should happen in Nigeria, however, it could have wide regional consequences, and we could be looking at the equivalent of a World War on the African continent along Christian/Muslim, lines.
If anyone thinks that would be in the best interests of global peace and security, I have some swampland in Florida I’d like to sell you.
If you want another example, consider Egypt. Though estimates of the Christian population vary widely, it’s probably at least 10 million people, and if they were to become radicalized, it would be a serious threat not only to the stability of the country but the entire Middle East — which, needless to say, is hardly in need of additional destabilization right now.
For the moment, perhaps, a cold-blooded analysis of the geopolitical risk posed by anti-Christian persecution is that it’s fairly minimal, because, to put it bluntly, Christians generally don’t fight back. At least in some critically important parts of the world, however, one probably shouldn’t bank on that forbearance lasting indefinitely.
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Speaking of Africa, a major conference will be taking place in Rome March 22-26 called “African Christian Theology: Memories and Mission for the 21st Century.” It’s sponsored by the University of Notre Dame, and the venue is Notre Dame’s “Global Gateway” facility located near the Colosseum.
Information on the conference can be found here.
Crux is planning to be all over the conference from beginning to end. In part, that’s because it will be a cross-section of heavy-hitters from the African church such as Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria; Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who heads the Vatican’s new Dicastery for Integral Human Development; and Cardinal Laurent Monsengo of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a member of the pope’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers.
In part, too, we’re going to be approaching this like it’s the Super Bowl because Africa is the zone of Catholicism’s greatest growth today, and because the last two Synods of Bishops have reminded us that the African bishops are now protagonists, not just junior partners, in Catholic affairs.
Watch the Crux site beginning Tuesday for our special coverage of this “African moment” in Rome.