YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon –Nigeria is becoming the “biggest killing ground of Christians in the world” due to attacks by Boko Haram and Fulani militants, says a leading charity.

International Christian Concern (ICC) estimates between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians have been killed in the last decade in the West African nation, the most populous on the continent.

Nigeria’s 206 million people are almost evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. Islam is the dominant faith in the North, and Christianity in the South – but most of the killings take place in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, where the halves of the country meet.

Attacks by Fulani herders in particular have had a devastating effect on Christian farmers -thousands have fled, leaving behind fertile farmlands.

“Without the access to their land, they no longer have the ability to grow food to sustain themselves and their families. It is also hurting the larger community as a whole as there are known food shortages throughout northern Nigeria,” Nathan Johnson – ICC’s Regional Manager for Africa – told Crux.

What follows are excerpts of his interview.

Crux: The ICC has asserted that Nigeria is the biggest killing ground of Christians today. How big a problem is Christian persecution in Nigeria compared to what goes on in other parts of the world?

The three biggest terrorist organizations in the world today are ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Shabaab. Boko Haram has been operating in Nigeria since 2009, and ISIS started a splinter group there in 2015 called Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Al-Shabaab operates out of Somalia and mainly in East Africa.

There is also another lesser known group which we at ICC term “Fulani militants.” This is a hostile group of individuals who attack Christian farming communities throughout the Middle Belt of Nigeria. We do use the term militants because there are many Fulani who are peaceful, but there are also violent groups amongst their population who use it as a disguise. Between these three groups, an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria since 2010.

What are the major drivers of the persecution?

This persecution has several different drivers, based on groups and location. For Boko Haram, they are dedicated to ridding Nigeria of all Western influence, of which they think Christianity is a part. They also seek to create an Islamic caliphate in the northeastern part of the country. ISWAP is very similar to Boko Haram in ideals, but they have further reasons as well.

They often attack Christians to avenge the deaths and attacks on ISIS and other Muslims around the world. One instance of this was the execution of 11 Christians on video last Christmas Eve, December 24, 2019. In the video, the group said that these killings were in retaliation for the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.

As for the Fulani militants, this is a very complex issue with socio-economic, ethnic, and religious drivers. For the socio-economic driver, the Fulani are mainly migrant herders who need access to land. The Christian farming communities of the Middle Belt also need access to this same land. This creates tensions when cattle graze on farms, or farms grow crops in cattle lands.

For the ethnic driver, there is a belief that the Fulani historically owned much of northern Nigeria in what was known as the Sokoto Caliphate. Due to this, some think that the Fulani are trying to regain control of what they see as their land. This leads them to then attack and take land from those who are not Fulani. This is mostly believed by groups such as the Tiv of Benue State, the Berom of Plateau State, and the Bachama of Admawa State, amongst others.

Finally, the religious driver is the fact that the Fulani are a primarily Muslim population. When they attack these farming villages, they often burn down churches, kill pastors, and destroy Christians homes and shops. I have never heard of a mosque being destroyed or imam being killed during these attacks, so there is a clear sign that they at least hate Christianity, if they are not blatantly targeting Christians.

With Fulani herdsmen attacking Christian farmers in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, what has been the impact on Christians and on their food security?

Tens of thousands of Christian farmers and their families have been displaced from what is called the breadbasket of Nigeria. This is the most fertile and healthy land in the country and has the potential to grow immense amounts of food. When the farmers are pushed off of their lands, they are forced to live with relatives, friends, or in IDP camps. Without the access to their land, they no longer have the ability to grow food to sustain themselves and their families. It is also hurting the larger community as a whole as there are known food shortages throughout northern Nigeria.

ICC is funding farms for Christians in the area. You already completed the first phase of the funding. How did it go? What objectives do you have for the second phase?

Yes, we have developed our first 10 farms. Of these farms, nine were completely successful. They were spaced across three different states in the Middle Belt: Plateau, Benue, and Adamawa State. We try to place them in the worst affected regions, but also where they have a relatively reasonable expectation of success.

All nine of these farms turned out more than three times the profit in terms of crops than the funds that were put into them. For instance, one of our best farms provided each family involved with approximately 3,000 pounds of rice. Also, all of these farms have also been replanted for a second or even third time at minimal cost to the farmers. This has brought an immense amount of dignity and hope to these communities. Also, each farm serves 75 families that have been displaced and most of whom have lost family members to these attacks. So these farms also help bring purpose back to many of them, and help to relieve the burden on the rest of the communities as well.

The one farm that was not successful was due to destruction by Fulani militants in June 2018. It was located in Barkin Ladi of Plateau State. In June 2018, Fulani militants raided Barkin Ladi in great numbers. Over just a few days, more than 200 Christians were killed, and thousands of hectares of land were occupied by the Fulani communities.

When I personally visited less than a week later, we had to obtain military permission and escorts to visit the farm we had built, which was now in Fulani-occupied territory.

What kind of help do you need?

This devastation and destruction in Nigeria must be aided by those who have the means. We at ICC are doing our best to bring aid that is sustainable and meets the needs of the Christians where they are. These farms are exactly that. They meet the needs of these farmers who in most cases have lost everything. They provide food, work, dignity, and a sense of purpose again. Our hope is also that they will, in the end, be able to help those in need around them, once they have reestablished themselves. If anyone would like to donate to this project, please give a gift to ICC’s Nigeria Crisis Fund.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected persecuted Christians in Nigeria as elsewhere in Africa, and what has been the response of the ICC?

COVID-19 has affected everyone in one way or another. For those in Africa, it often means much harder living. For those who work on farms, but live in areas that have curfews or lockdowns, it can mean great struggle to take care of the farms.

There have also been many who have faced discrimination during this time. Many have been refused food or healthcare that was given by the government but was given to the leadership of a community. When those who have been discriminated against live in the minority of their community, they feel that they are being refused aid based on their minority status. We have seen this in Nigeria, Kenya, Pakistan, India, and many other places.

In order to help with this, ICC has been distributing food packages to Christian families that have been discriminated against based on their faith. Each package is meant to last at least two weeks, but can often last for more than a month. We are also now looking into how to help with jobs and financial strain due to the pandemic. To help with this project, please consider giving to ICC’s COVID-19 Crisis Fund.