ABUJA/JOS, Nigeria — It would certainly be understandable if the almost 1,000 Nigerian Christians today living in a crude camp for internally displaced people called New Kuchingoro, located outside the capital city of Abuja, weren’t feeling very charitable right now toward Muslims.
These are Christians, after all, who’ve been driven from their homes by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. They’ve lost the farms where they once made a comfortable living raising beans, and they’ve seen their villages razed to the ground.
Virtually everyone has had relatives slaughtered, sometimes by beheading or being burned alive, and often while gathered in church. Now they face appalling living conditions in the camp, where at least eight people have died since their arrival a year and a half ago.
There’s no work, and little to do except ponder their own agony.
Yet remarkably, the camp also contains a small group of 31 Muslims who’ve been accepted and welcomed by the 923 Christians. They play cards together, they share food and help care for one another’s children, and they gather to watch soccer matches on a small community TV.
“We are friends,” said Philemon Emmanuel, the camp’s informal leader and spokesman.
When I ask Emmanuel how he avoids feeling angry, he has a simple explanation.
“If these Muslims ran away, it means they weren’t the bad guys,” he said. “The fact that they’re here means they’re victims, too.”
The fellowship of suffering in the New Kuchingoro camp illustrates one of the least appreciated aspects of the Boko Haram story: That the group’s rise has not only split Christians and Muslims apart, it’s also brought them together in striking and unpredictable ways.
In microcosm, the camp captures perhaps the single most important unresolved question raised by Boko Haram, which is blamed for 17,000 deaths since 2009.
The question is: Will most Christians and Muslims here overcome their differences, offering the world a precious example of a society that refuses to play into the terrorists’ hands? Or will they be driven further apart, and end up simply waiting for the next cycle of violence to erupt?
To be honest, after spending the last week in Nigeria, one has the sense that things could go either way.
On Wednesday night, I was asked to give a talk on anti-Christian persecution at Abuja’s glittering National Christian Centre, a neo-gothic ecumenical cathedral built under former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, to rival the city’s National Mosque.
Both the cathedral and the mosque now dominate Abuja’s landscape, a symbol of the way that Muslims and Christians here are fated to live together.
Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja was the chairman for the evening, and he invited several Muslim friends — precisely because he didn’t want it to turn into an occasion for beating up on Islam.
One of those Muslims rose to remind me that we had met eight years ago when I was in Abuja and visited the mosque. He said he wanted to applaud my assertion that rational followers of all religions, those who reject violence and embrace dialogue, have more in common with one another than with the extremists in their own camps.
That seemed to augur well, but he added a worrying coda: My visit to the mosque in 2007, it turns out, had stirred controversy after I left. My friend said he took heat from fellow Muslims for bringing an “infidel” into their midst.
“Sorry I was the infidel who got you into trouble,” I replied, drawing laughter from the crowd.
The same juxtaposition of hope and alarm can be found up and down the country.
You’ll find stories of Muslims gathering to defend Christian churches on Sundays in Boko Haram hotspots, and Christians returning the favor by turning out to protect mosques on Fridays. You can find Muslims who say they’re so horrified by what Boko Haram has unleashed that they’ve worked even harder to strengthen their ties with Christians.
Yet for every such voice, there are also Nigerians such as Musa Audu Badung, an Evangelical Christian from the northern Plateau state. He said his father converted from Islam to Christianity in 1973, and he grew up hearing “terrible things” about Islam.
His own attitudes have hardened, in large part because of his experience, including seeing the corpses of 60 Christians in a nearby village burned to death inside their church. On the back of all that, he isn’t in a terribly tolerant mood.
“Christianity to me is a religion,” he says bluntly, “but Islam is a cult.”
Whether Christians and Muslims are able to make it work here is of more than merely local interest. Nigeria is the largest country in the world in which roughly equal populations of both faiths live cheek by jowl — as Imam Sani Isah of the Waff Road Mosque in Kaduna puts it, it’s “Saudi Arabia and the Vatican rolled into one.”
Inevitably, therefore, what happens in Nigeria will have reverberations all around the world.
Ordinary Nigerians, Christians and Muslims alike, may not be able to control what happens with Boko Haram, though most enthusiastically cheered when the country’s new government under President Muhammadu Buhari — for the record, a Muslim with a reputation for religious seriousness — vowed to wipe it out within three months.
What they can control, however, is whether they allow Boko Haram to set the agenda for their relationship. Much depends on what they decide.
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My Crux colleague Inés San Martín and I spent the last week reporting from Nigeria, primarily about Boko Haram, but also regarding other matters of Catholic interest. Here’s a rundown of those reports:
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Two humble spots tell the tale of Nigeria’s new martyrs
So many Christians have perished in Nigeria amid the carnage unleashed by Boko Haram – according to Open Doors, a Protestant watchdog group on anti-Christian persecution, there were 2,484 such casualties in 2014 alone – it can be hard to remember that each such death is a drama unto itself.
Two humble spots in different parts of the country, however, bring the point home.
About an hour outside the capital city of Abuja is St. Theresa’s Catholic Church, where a Boko Haram car bomb exploded on Christmas Day in 2011, leaving 46 people dead, including 26 members of the parish community.
Inside the church compound today is a simple memorial to those victims, which forms the centerpiece of a cemetery where 16 of them are buried. Perhaps most evocative of all is the name of a seven-month-old infant who was among the dead, Chiemerie Nwachukwu.
To the side of the graves are the rusting remains of two cars that were damaged when the bomb went off.
On Friday, we attended a monthly Mass at St. Theresa’s in honor of the victims led by the Rev. Father Raphael Imelo, the pastor.
“The persecution of Christians is an old story, which is why the Church believes the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith,” Imelo told the small group, composed mostly of people injured in the blast and relatives of those who died.
“We pray for other Christians who are suffering what we suffered here,” he said. “We pray that the spirit of God may come upon the authorities of the world, especially the superpowers, and make them protect religious freedom.”
After the Mass, the group processed outside to the memorial for a brief moment of reverence. Imelo asked one man and one woman to offer a prayer, and the man referred directly to the Boko Haram militants who carry out such attacks.
“May you arrest them as you arrested Paul on the way to Damascus, so they will repent,” he said, referring to a well-known episode from the New Testament.
“From all those who hate Christians, Lord, come to our rescue,” he said, “because this problem is too great for us alone.”
As he spoke, Ejimbe Beneath, a young woman who suffered a severe leg injury in the bombing that remains untreated to this day, stood weeping silently.
After the prayers, the group began pulling weeds out of the gravesite while Imelo explained that the parish is trying to raise money to ensure that the children of the victims are able to attend its Catholic school.
In the north central Nigeria city of Jos, one can find the Catholic parish of St. Finbar, named for a 6th century Irish hermit from Cork – a reminder, among other things, that it was Irish missionaries who built up much of the Nigerian Church.
On March 11, 2012, Boko Haram detonated a car bomb at St. Finbar’s shortly after the beginning of the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass, killing 14 people.
The death toll would have been much worse, according to the Rev. Peter Umoren, the pastor, except that a group of boys providing security refused to let the car enter the main gate and so it exploded outside.
Today, a stone memorial marks the spot where the bomb exploded, featuring a small plaque, made of metal so cheap it’s already begun to bend, listing the names of the victims. Most harrowing of all, sitting atop the memorial is the twisted frame of the car that carried the bomb.
The Rev. Peter Umoren, pastor of St. Finbar’s, points to the twisted metal plaque inscribed with the names of Boko Haram bombing victims. The shredded remains of the car carrying the bomb sits above the memorial.
In an Aug. 25 interview with Crux, Umoren said the attack did not have the desired effect of terrorizing his flock.
“At the beginning, the people were shattered, especially those who lost members of their family,” he said. Yet today, he said, “the church is now stronger.”
“Their faith is deeper, all the Masses are full,” he said. “Our people are absolutely more committed than they were before. I see that in the number of people who come to confession and Communion, other church activities.”
“They are not going to be intimidated,” Umoren said, “when it comes to their faith.”
Neither of the memorials at St. Theresa’s or at St. Finbar’s are the sort of grandiose tributes to the victims of tragedy one might expect in affluent Western societies. Befitting a place in which 76 percent of the population lives in poverty, they are humble and small-scale, already showing signs of wear and tear.
Their very modesty, however, helps tell the tale. They recall believers whose lives were largely enveloped in neglect, and whose deaths have not stirred any vast international outrage.
Joseph Stalin supposedly once said that a single death is tragedy, while a million is a statistic. The memorials at St. Theresa’s and St. Finbar’s make the opposite point: That underneath all the statistics about anti-Christian persecution lie countless individual tragedies.