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YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – On Aug. 22, 2022, the world will commemorate victims of religiously motivated violence during a special day set aside by the United Nations.
Ahead of the day, Aid to the Church in Need UK (ACN UK), has called on the international community to pay attention to the pervasive intolerance directed especially against Christians, particularly in Africa.
“You don’t have to be murdered to be a victim; it is enough to have your basic freedoms restricted. Christians in Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso, to name just a few, live practically in ghettos, and practice their faith underground,” said the executive president of ACN UK, Thomas Heine-Geldern.
“On 22 August we should remember not only those who lost their lives, but also all those who are victims of discrimination and who suffer the immediate consequences of violence, as well as the displaced, those who are left traumatized and all those who are kidnapped, including some whose whereabouts remain unknown,” he added.
Fionn Shiner, parliamentary and press officer for ACN UK told Crux that Christians in Africa have shown exceptional resilience in the face of rising anti-Christian violence.
“The overwhelming sense we get from speaking to clerics in these countries is that Christians are suffering seriously, struggling immensely, yet have not lost their hope in Christ,” he said.
Following are excerpts of that interview…
Crux: Please describe just how hard it is for Christians to exercise their faith in some parts Africa, particularly in the countries such as Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Mali, and Niger.
Shiner: There are a number of African countries where Christians find it extremely difficult to practice their faith. The most common cause of this is Islamist violence, in countries such as Mozambique, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Sudan. Eritrea is also one of the worst offending countries, although that is because the government is atheist and deeply mistrustful of any form of religion, often dubbed “the North Korea of Africa.” Christians in Eritrea face serious restrictions on their ability to practice their faith freely, and it is not uncommon for Christians to be arrested and detained without explanation.
Of the four countries you have listed, the situation is most pressing in Nigeria. So far, 2022 has seen a torrent of persecution for Nigerian Christians. Priests have continued to be kidnapped and often killed. One priest, Father Joseph Akete Bako from St John’s Catholic Church, Kudenda, was tortured to death after being taken in March. In May, Deborah Samuel, a young Christian woman, was stoned to death and set alight because of allegedly “blasphemous” messages. Last June, on Pentecost Sunday, St Francis Xavier Church of Owo, Ondo state, was attacked by gunmen during Mass who killed at least 41 people and left many injured. In recent weeks, jihadists have staged attacks on Abuja.
In Mali, jihadist groups such as Jama’at al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) have now taken over the centre of the country, as well as the north. While the constitution of Mali makes provision for freedom of religion or belief, there are areas of the country where it is reported that Catholicism is now banned and Shari‘a is imposed. Burkina Faso faces similar problems from non-state actors, and in the diocese of Fada N’Gourma, in the east of the country, 95 percent of villages currently lack priests after a series of terror attacks. A report sent out by the diocese, seen by ACN, highlighted that frequent robberies, kidnappings and murders have all increased. Five of the diocese’s 16 parishes were directly attacked and forced to close, while in seven others, ministry is restricted to the main church because terrorists control land routes and have destroyed telephone communication networks.
Are jihadists at the core of such persecution?
Jihadists in the Sahel region, and the Chad basin, are trying to establish a caliphate. With no respect for national boundaries, they move in and out of neighbouring countries and cause carnage. The entire region is being destabilised and Christians are routinely under fire. Deadly attacks on churches, kidnappings and rape are common.
When you speak to Christians in these countries, what do they tell you is keeping them going? Why can’t they capitulate in the face of such violence?
A number of Nigerian bishops have said that in a perverse way, the persecution of the church there has led to the flourishing of the faith. For example, Bishop Oliver Dashe Doeme of Maiduguri spoke to ACN following a Christmas Eve attack in 2020 that left at least 11 dead. He said: “One thing that Boko Haram will never take from us is our faith. We will never allow our faith to be taken away by any evil. Our faith is becoming stronger and stronger. 100 people were baptized in one parish on Christmas Eve. People are so committed.”
He added: “As long as the kingdom of God continues, no evil human forces will overcome it. Over 200 churches have been burned down, as well as schools, but we will not be defeated.”
Bishop Doeme reiterated these comments recently to ACN, saying: “Any time there is persecution, the church becomes more alive, more active, and more vibrant. That is what has happened in our diocese. As the persecution has increased, our people have become very strong in their faith, unshakeable in their faith… One thing our people will not want destroyed by Boko Haram is their faith; their faith will remain unshakeable.”
However, Archbishop Matthew Man-Oso Ndagoso of Kaduna adopted a slightly different tone. He said: “Everybody is on edge – all of us, the clergy, the laypeople, everybody. People are afraid, and rightly so. People are traumatised, and rightly so.” He also said, “People are starved of the sacraments.”
The overwhelming sense we get from speaking to clerics in these countries is that Christians are suffering seriously, struggling immensely, yet have not lost their hope in Christ.
What has been the attitude of the international community in the face of attacks on Christians?
In my opinion, pretty underwhelming. I’ve not seen anything from the international community that suggests it is taking it seriously. There are still attempts to deny, or diminish, the religious element to these attacks. In Nigeria, for example, particularly in the Middle Belt, it has long been argued that attacks on Christians are due to climate change, and the scarcity of resources this has created. Following the Pentecost Sunday massacre this June, Irish President Michael D. Higgins said: “That such an attack was made in a place of worship is a source of particular condemnation, as is any attempt to scapegoat pastoral peoples who are among the foremost victims of the consequences of climate change.”
Bishop Jude Ayodeji Arogundade of Ondo, responded in an open letter: “To suggest or make a connection between victims of terror and consequences of climate change is not only misleading but also exactly rubbing salt to the injuries of all who have suffered terrorism in Nigeria.”
The international community shows great reluctance to acknowledge the blatantly religious motivation of many of the attackers who are deliberately trying to wipe out Christianity. When Abubakar Shekau took power of Boko Haram, he publicly stated in a 2012 video message that they were conducting a “war on Christians,” a campaign that has gone beyond the borders of Nigeria.
What concretely should the international community do to smother the tide of Christian persecution?
The first step, as alluded to earlier, is for the international community to acknowledge the scale of Christian persecution in Africa. Once that has been done, conversations need to be had with the governments of the countries where they are at most risk. If the government in a particular country is not doing enough – clerics routinely accuse the Nigerian government of apathy, or outright complicity, for example – then the international community needs to pressurise them into taking effective action. What the international community need to realise is that, in our world of interconnectedness, if a country as big as Nigeria were to descend into chaos, as it threatens to do, then we certainly will feel the effect. It is in everyone’s best interests for action to be taken.
There is also the option of making aid contingent upon the governments in question hitting certain targets in the fight against Christian persecution.