ABUJA/JOS, Nigeria — On Christmas Day 2011, Chioma Dike was attending Mass with her family at their parish of St. Theresa’s, about an hour outside Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja, when a bomb went off just outside the church.
The blast killed 46 people, including Dike’s husband and three of their five children. Today, she and her surviving children have lingering health problems as a result of the bombing and no way to pay their medical bills. Four years later, tears still come to her eyes as she describes her loss.
Remarkably, she has no hatred for those who devastated her family.
“I’m not angry,” Dike said. “I pray for God to forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing.”
Of the two children she has left, one is a boy who’s bedridden as a result of a nail in his head doctors can’t remove. The second is a girl whose leg was so badly burned that it still gives her intense pain when she walks.
As heart-wrenching as her story is, it’s hardly unique. St. Theresa’s has a seating capacity of 1,000 and the church was packed on the day of the bombing, so scores of families have similar stories of loss.
Kate Ehis, for instance, is also in her 30s. Her 12-year-old son has three pieces of metal in his brain, producing extreme headaches. Her daughter only recently began walking again after spending months in the hospital as a result of an exposed fracture in three places in her left leg.
Ehis strikes a defiant note about the Boko Haram militants who brought their war to the doors of her church, insisting that the experience has actually deepened her faith.
“I believe they did this to put fear in the lives of Christians, but unfortunately [for them], they couldn’t,” she told Crux. “God has strengthened us.”
The Rev. Almady Michael Gadache, who runs an office of justice and peace for the local Catholic diocese, also serves as coordinator of a welfare center that St. Theresa’s opened after the blast. The center distributes some aid to victims, but not enough to meet the need.
Gadache is currently knocking on the doors of international Christian charities to raise the $21,000 he says is needed to cover urgent medical expenses for more than 100 people injured in the blast.
“The number is higher today than it was then,” he said. That’s partly because many victims didn’t seek treatment at the time because they couldn’t afford it, and in the four years since the attack, their conditions worsened.
In reality, however, it wasn’t just parishioners at St. Theresa’s who perished, because the bomb went off outside the church and also killed several Muslim passersby in the religiously mixed neighborhood.
As a result, the attack is a compelling symbol not merely of the human cost of religious hatred, but also the enigma that Boko Haram often presents.
Boko Haram is an Islamic extremist organization whose commonly used name means “Western education is forbidden,” but which formally calls itself Jama’at Ahl As-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihad, meaning “People for the Teachings [of Islam] and Preaching and Jihad.” It’s based mostly in northern Nigeria, and occasionally bleeds into the neighboring nations of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon.
It was founded in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf, a Muslim leader who preached against the evils of Western culture and the corruption of local Islamic elites as well as the Nigerian state.
After Yusuf’s summary execution in a police station in 2009, a process of radicalization began under the leadership of his successor, Abubakar Shekau, who has led the group into killing an estimated 19,000 people, kidnapping hundreds — including 213 schoolgirls — and torching dozens of Christian churches.
More than 1.5 million people are said to have been internally displaced because of Boko Haram-related violence in 2014 alone.
While everyone can agree on the carnage Boko Haram has produced, there’s a wider range of opinion as to why they’re doing it.
Nigerian sociologist Musa Abdullahi, a Muslim, says that despite conventional wisdom, Christians aren’t the main target of Boko Haram.
“Shekau is very dangerous, very brutal, he likes killing,” he told Crux last week. “When he took over, he first said they’re just after the police, after the government. Then they included civil servants, then business people, then every citizen … man or woman, girl or boy, old or young; it doesn’t matter.”
Statistically speaking, he says, in the 12 northern Nigerian states where Boko Haram has a strong presence, the victims among Christians and Muslims are proportional to the population of each religious group, and the same is true of the number of mosques and churches they’ve torched.
Suleiman B. Mohammed, a political scientist, agreed that Boko Haram is just as lethal to Muslims as Christians.
“They’re a bunch of criminals using religion as an ideology to recruit and conscript people into the movement, so they have crews of suicide bombers,” he said.
Mohammed believes that not only was the Nigerian state careless in keeping the group under surveillance at the beginning – he dates its origins to 1992 – but Boko Haram took advantage of the country’s socio-economic system, particularly the rough-and-tumble nature of Nigerian politics.
“In their desperation to acquire power, [politicians] use all kinds of elements at their disposition, including violence,” Mohammed said. “They recruited Boko Haram members,” meaning as political thugs, “and supported them.”
Both scholars insist the terrorist organization can’t be defined as a “religious” movement, and say it’s not primarily motivated by theological convictions. They quote the case of a video circulating on the Web that shows one of the group’s leaders who, when asked, can’t recite a single verse from the Quran.
For the record, the Muslim Abdullahi has also suffered during this conflict.
He has lost three family members, one a soldier killed fighting Boko Haram and two more slaughtered because they refused to join the group. He also has 27 family members living in his house in the northern city of Maiduguri because they had to flee their own homes.
Nigeria was long a source of hope in Christian/Muslim relations, a place where both communities are fairly evenly represented and where friendships, business relations, even intermarriages between the two communities were common and uncontroversial.
Today, many say that harmony may be at risk.
The Rev. Peter “Morris” Omori of the northern city of Jos, whose parish church was bombed by Boko Haram in 2012, killing 14 people, says that the once-strong bonds between Muslims and Christians in Jos have been broken beyond repair, something he described as “tragic.”
Omori acknowledges that most “true Muslims” in Nigeria are appalled by Boko Haram, but says even many of them have been infected by a climate of mutual suspicion.
“Even some of these true Muslims have become distant,” he said while offering a tour of his parish of St. Finnbar’s, including a small memorial to the victims and the rusting remains of the car used by Boko Haram militants to deliver the explosives to the church.
On the other hand, Omori says that if Boko Haram’s ultimate aim was to terrorize Christians, it has failed.
“The church is now stronger,” he said. “The people’s faith is deeper, [and] all our Masses are full.”
Catholic Bishop Matthew Kukah of Sokoto, in the predominantly Muslim north, offers another explanation of what fuels Boko Haram – rage against the traditional Islamic elites in northern Nigeria, seen by Boko Haram as corrupt.
“They say that if Western education prepares you to lead this kind of immoral and corrupt life, it’s not for us,” Kukah said.
However, for the Ehis, Obiukus, and Dikes of St. Theresa’s, these are all pointless rationalizations. For them, Boko Haram’s assault on their church, and similar atrocities across the country, has only one explanation: They’re Christians.
“[The bombing] happened on Christmas Day, the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ,” said Remi Ofuohan, another survivor. “It didn’t happen in any other place. It happened here, at church.”
“Obviously, it was against Christians,” Ofuohan said.
In that sense, the thousands of Nigerian Christians who have lost relatives, homes, and property, who have seen their churches torched and watched camps of their displaced fellow believers swell, aren’t especially interested in complex theories about Boko Haram’s origins or agenda.
“At the moment I was very angry and bitter, but then I thought, who am I to be angry?” said Ebuka Obiako, who lost part of his vision in the blast and now has a metal plate in his head, producing intense headaches.
“I said to myself, once God forgives them, so will I, so I have,” he said.
Today, Obiako seems less interested in explaining Boko Haram than in recovering from its consequences.
“We need help,” he said simply. “If anyone can help me, help us, please do it.”