Third in a series of occasional articles examining the persecution of Christians around the world.
ABUJA/JOS, Nigeria — Nigeria has long been a country of vast potential and equally vast failures, including corruption on a mind-boggling scale, crushing levels of poverty, and, most recently, a vicious home-grown Islamic movement that’s made a specialty of terrorizing the country’s Christians.
Little wonder then that a “Prayer for Nigeria” has been recited at all Catholic Masses here since 1993. It closes with a plea to God to save the country from “chaos, anarchy, and doom.” Watching how fervently people still recite the line, it is clear that, for many of them, doom seems a frighteningly real prospect.
Musa Auda Badung is among those Nigerian Christians convinced that God hasn’t been listening terribly closely.
The son of a convert from Islam, Badung lives in Nigeria’s northern Plateau state, which has long been a flashpoint for Christian-Muslim tensions. He says he’s lost more than 20 members of his extended family to the violence and has witnessed horrors that almost defy imagination, including the corpses of roughly 60 Christians who had been burned alive in their pastor’s home in July 2012 in the village of Maseh.
“Every time you go to church,” Badung said in a late August interview, “you’re taking your life in your hands.”
Badung said assaults are so common in his area that Christians have had to learn to judge by ear how far away gunfire sounds so they can decide whether to continue a service or shout a quick “Amen” and disperse. In January, he said, he was forced to hide on the floor of his church during one such attack and to watch a friend bleed to death in church from a gunshot.
Badung isn’t counting on divine deliverance anymore. He would like to take up arms.
“The Westerners who brought us our religion taught us that when your enemy strikes you, you turn the other cheek,” he said. “We’ve become defenseless.”
In the Plateau state of his youth, Badung said, Christians and Muslims got along, a fact in which he took pride. Today, he said, his attitudes have hardened. “Christianity to me is a religion,” he said bluntly, “but Islam is a cult.”
Badung’s story captures, in miniature, the paradoxical situation facing Christianity across Africa.
On one hand, Africa is the zone of Christianity’s greatest growth. It is already the world’s most populous Christian continent, with slightly more Christians today than there are in North America, and the numbers are burgeoning. The Pew Forum projects that by 2050, sub-Saharan Africa will have 1.1 billion Christians, almost twice as much as its nearest rival for adherents, Islam.
Africa is also widely considered the most dynamic corner of the Christian map. A continent that not so long ago was a leading destination for foreign missionaries is now exporting priests and pastors, many of whom perceive a calling to reawaken the faith in parts of the world where they believe it’s become dormant.
Yet Africa is equally a continent where Christians and Christianity are under assault.
In Nigeria and the bordering nations of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, the violent Islamists of the regional movement known as Boko Haram lash out against anyone who stands in its way, with a special animus against Christians. In Kenya, Uganda, and other parts of eastern Africa, the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab organization targets Christians, including an April 2015 attack on Garissa University in Kenya in which gunmen spared Muslim students but shot the Christians, leaving 147 dead.
Such mortal threats don’t come only from Muslim extremists, in part because African Christians often pose a menace to one another.
In Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony claims to have Christian inspiration, but routinely brutalizes Christians. Famously, the 1990s-era genocide in Rwanda and Burundi, which numbered among its hundreds of thousands of victims 36 Catholic seminarians and eight members of a seminary staff in Burundi, was largely carried out by baptized Christians.
And it’s not just Christians who find themselves caught in the crossfire.
Boko Haram is thought to have been responsible for 17,000 deaths since 2009, and, by most estimates, a solid majority of its victims have been fellow Muslims. Under the right conditions, virtually any religious, ethnic, or linguistic group can find itself vulnerable.
It is fashionable in Christian circles to say that Africa is the future of the faith. If so, it’s a future in which tremendous growth and energy are one half of the picture, but widespread persecution and martyrdom seem destined to be the other.
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Nigeria is a bellwether nation on this continent because in many respects it’s the emerging African superpower. The most populous African nation, with 183 million people, it has Africa’s largest economy and is by far its largest producer of oil.
It also leads the pack in anti-Christian persecution. According to the Protestant watchdog group “Open Doors,” there were, from late 2012 to early 2014, more Christians killed for reasons related to their faith in Nigeria than in any other country in the world, outpacing even the Middle East cauldrons of Syria and Iraq.
Despite a mid-August vow from the country’s new government to wipe out Boko Haram “within three months,” signals are mixed as to whether the threat is diminishing.
In late August, Crux reporters met with a group of Christians from the Plateau state who expressed skepticism that Boko Haram would be eradicated. Two days later, a member of the group reported that a fresh attack by militants was underway in a village in the area called Tanjol that claimed the lives of two young Christians named Dachung Bayarbe and Amos Dachung.
“Boko Haram,” which means “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language spoken in the predominantly Muslim north, is a name mockingly assigned to the terrorist group by its critics. Formally, the group 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 was founded in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf, a Muslim from the present-day Yobe state who preached against the evils of Western culture and the failures of the Nigerian state. After his execution in a police station in 2009, his successor, Abubakar Shekau, led the group in a more violent direction — notoriously including the kidnapping of the so-called Chibok girls, 276 Christian schoolgirls taken from a remote town in April 2014; most of them remain missing. That atrocity was preceded by a less well-known attack on a boys’ school in February 2014 that left 59 young men dead, mostly Muslims.
More than 1.5 million people are said to have been internally displaced from their homes and villages because of Boko Haram-related mayhem in 2014 alone. While everyone can agree on the damage the group has caused, there’s a wider range of opinion as to why they’re doing it.
Nigerian sociologist Musa Abdullahi, a Muslim, says that while Boko Haram may have begun as a protest against injustice and corruption, it has become a criminal gang for which indiscriminate violence is a way of life.
“Shekau is very brutal, he likes killing,” he told Crux. “When he took over, he first said, ‘We’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, Christian or Muslim, it doesn’t matter.”
Abdullahi has searing personal experiences to back up his assertion.
He said he’s lost three Muslim family members, one a soldier killed fighting Boko Haram and two more slaughtered because they refused to join the group. He said he also has 27 family members, most of them Muslims, who currently live in his house in the northern city of Maiduguri because they had to flee their homes.
Catholic Bishop Matthew Kukah of Sokoto, a city in the predominantly Muslim north, offers another explanation for what fuels Boko Haram: rage against members of traditional Islamic elites, often educated overseas and wealthy, who are 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, adding that, in a sense, Boko Haram isn’t wrong.
“It’s out there for all to see,” Kukah said. “A governor appoints his friend as an emir, and everyone knows how much they’re part of the corruption of the state.”
Kukah reads Boko Haram as a symptom, with the disease afflicting Nigeria being the “failure to build a true democracy.”
Still, it’s hard to convince Nigerian Christians that what’s unfolding isn’t fundamentally a religious conflict.
Remi Ofuohan is a survivor of a Boko Haram bomb blast at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Madalla, about an hour outside the capital city of Abuja, which left 46 people dead on Christmas Day in 2011. Ofuohan lost sight in one eye and walks with a pronounced limp due to a still-untreated blow to his leg.
“[The bombing] happened on Christmas Day, the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ,” Ofuohan said. “It didn’t happen in any other place. It happened here, at church.”
“Obviously,” he said, “it was against Christians.”
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The appalling violence that afflicts much of Nigeria has created victims and enemies, but also some unlikely friends.
It would be understandable, for instance, if the almost 1,000 Christians today living in a crude camp for internally displaced persons called “New Kuchingoro,” located outside Abuja, felt only hostility toward Muslims.
Militants shouting “Allahu Akbar!” have seized the farms where they made a comfortable living raising beans and razed their villages. Virtually everyone has had relatives slaughtered, sometimes by beheading or being burned alive. Now they face appalling living conditions in the camp.
Yet remarkably, the camp also contains a small group of 31 Muslims who have been accepted and welcomed by their 923 Christian neighbors. 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.
Emmanuel offers a simple explanation for the surprising harmony.
“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.”
Suleiman B. Mohammed, a Muslim political scientist, says the same juxtaposition of hostility and common cause plays out up and down the country.
In the conflict-ridden north of Nigeria, Mohammed said, one can see throngs of Muslims turning out on Sundays to defend Christian churches and equally large numbers of Christians gathering on Fridays to defend mosques. At a personal level, he said many Christians and Muslims have worked hard to strengthen their bonds as an act of defiance.
For every such example, however, there’s also a voice such as the Rev. Peter Umoren of the northern city of Jos, whose parish church of St. Finbar’s was bombed by Boko Haram in 2012, killing 14 people.
Umoren says that the once-strong bonds between Muslims and Christians in Jos have been broken beyond repair, something he described as “tragic.”
Even if the violence were to end, Umoren said, “I don’t think things could go back to the way they were. . . . The events of the past would still be hanging over people on both sides.”
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 put it, it’s “Saudi Arabia and the Vatican rolled into one.”
Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, the leading figure in Nigerian Catholicism, says much is at stake in how his countrymen respond.
“We have the chance to be an example for the world,” he told a gathering in Abuja in August, before an audience including both Christians and Muslims. “We have to get this right.”
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To the southeast of Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, an overwhelmingly Christian nation of 68 million people, offers a very different saga of anti-Christian violence. There, the threats come not from Islamic radicalism, but from a staggering variety of malefactors, often including Christians.
Unthinkable violence is nothing new here. Historical accounts often make it sound as if the great “Congo Wars” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries — which left an estimated 5 million people dead — had a formal ending. The truth is otherwise; there never was an armistice. Today the fighting continues, waxing and waning, but seemingly unstoppable.
Through it all, Christian churches and their personnel have largely stood their ground, often the lone social institution that doesn’t pull out despite the deadly threats. This makes them a ready and regular target, not just for feuding forces, but also for the kinds of mayhem that find opportunity in chaos.
In late February 2015, the Rev. Jean-Paul Kakule Kyalembera, a Catholic priest in North Kivu, was shot dead in his church, apparently during a botched robbery. Bishop Théophile Kaboy Ruboneka of Goma, the diocese in which Kakule served, insisted that the slain priest knew the risks, but chose to remain in place out of a sense of religious duty.
“In our diocese, there are many gangs that terrorize the population, and there are too many weapons in circulation,” Kaboy said. “Nuns, too, are among the victims of violence and extortion, as they are threatened with death if they do not pay a ransom.”
Indeed, the scale of the slaughter in Congo is so vast that it is easy for the individual stories of its victims to get lost.
They include Marie-Thérèse Nlandu, a Christian human rights activist and attorney who survived 160 days of torture and abuse in a Congolese prison in 2007 for defending some of the country’s most vulnerable and abused people.
While behind bars, Nlandu lost almost 60 pounds, suffered a heart attack, and was ravaged by malaria. She was denied medical attention because guards heard her leading other women in songs of Christian praise and reportedly said, “If you are well enough to sing, you don’t need a doctor.”
And then there was a Catholic nun named Liliane Mapalayi, who was stabbed to death on Feb. 2, 2012. Mapalayi worked in a high school run by her congregation and was attacked while in her office. On hearing her screams, the director of the school and another nun rushed into Mapalayi’s office; she died in their arms, a kitchen knife buried in her heart.
Militants and criminal bands had threatened the school before, but local observers say Mapalayi refused to abandon her post, insisting that Congo needed to educate its children to take a path different from the violence and hatred that surround them.
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The African experience also says something else about religious persecution, a truth hard-won but real: Attempts to intimidate or muzzle its victims backfire as often as they succeed — strengthening the tenacity of those targeted.
The Rev. Neimon Gowon offers a remarkable example. An Anglican priest in northern Nigeria, he says he has lost six members of one parish he serves to Boko Haram violence and 18 in another.
At one level, Gowon conceded, the effort to eradicate Christianity from the area is working.
“You can look around and see large churches standing empty, because more than 30,000 of our people have been displaced,” he said.
Yet behind that grim reality, something else is happening. In the past two years, he says, 700 Muslims in his area have converted to Christianity, many appalled by what they see being done in the name of their original creed.
“Some tell me they’ve come to hate Islam for the terror it creates,” Gowon said. Recently, he said, he ordained the first of those converts as an Anglican priest.
Many other African Christians say that although they see little reason for hope, they’re just not willing to give up.
Dauda Musa is a Catholic and father of five children from Nigeria’s northeastern Adamawa state. In 2013, he and his family were driven from their home when Boko Haram militants attacked his village, burning churches and leaving 34 Christians dead, including one of Musa’s brothers. Today he’s living in a camp for internally displaced people.
Musa said that at one point, militants put a gun to his head and demanded that he embrace Islam, but he refused, saying, “I’ll die because of Jesus Christ.”
Kate Ehis, another survivor of the 2011 bombing at St. Theresa’s Church in Madalla, echoed the sentiment.
Two of her children were severely injured in the attack. Her son, age 12, now has a metal plate in his head and suffers extreme headaches; a 10-year-old daughter suffered leg fractures and struggles to walk. Still, she said, the experience has strengthened her commitment to Christianity.
“Boko Haram has taken away almost everything else from us,” Ehis said, a note of defiance in her voice. “I’m not going to let them take away my faith.”