The uncommon faith of a country decimated by Boko Haram

Around 8 a.m. on a cold, dusty Sunday morning in mid-January, two heavily armed security guards stood aloof, almost unapproachable, at the gate of St. Hilary’s Catholic Church in the Jiddari Polo neighborhood of Maiduguri, the largest city in northeastern Nigeria. As the dry Harmattan winds swept across the city, people sauntered toward the church, hands upraised for the guards who were alert for a warning beep as they frisked parishioners with handheld metal detectors.

Parishioners socialize after Mass at St. Hillary's Catholic Church in Maiduguri, Nigeria. (Linus Unah)

Once the choir began to perform the entrance hymn, two lectors and six young altar servers adorned in milky albs girdled with tasselled cinctures processed in from the main entrance at the back of the church.

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The priest began the Mass with the sign of the cross and welcomed the people. His green chasuble—representing the promise of a new life and hope—was perfect for a day like this. The new year was still fresh, and for hundreds of the Nigerians who visit this church every day, people driven from their villages into the the comparable safety of the city, hope is a balm for their wounds.

Members of the militant Islamist group Boko Haram have decimated their communities and villages—leaving in their path a trail of blood and debris, painful memories and hardship. Since the militants began their attacks in 2009, seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate in the north of Nigeria, they have killed some 20,000 people and forced more than two million others to flee their homes.

Designated a terrorist group by the United States in 2013, Boko Haram gained international prominence in April 2014, when its militants kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from their dormitories in Chibok, a predominantly Christian town about 80 miles from Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. (Since the kidnapping as many as 164 girls have escaped or have been liberated by authorities.)

A Survivor’s Story

Among the congregation at St. Hilary’s this Sunday is Rebecca Bitrus, whose unfocused gaze suggests a story of pain, perseverance and, finally, hope. St. Hilary’s, she says, is the only place where she can unburden herself of her grief and renew her faith in God.

When militants attacked her town of Baga one August evening in 2014, she and her husband, Zachariah Bitrus, tried to escape. But their children slowed their steps. As the militants raced closer to them, Mrs. Bitrus, mindful that Boko Haram were killing most of the men and boys they captured, urged her husband to leave her and their two children and to flee ahead.

Members of the militant Islamist group Boko Haram have decimated their communities and villages—leaving in their path a trail of blood and debris, painful memories and hardship.

The fighter who had been pursuing her husband soon gave up and returned to where she was standing with her two sons—3-year-old Zachariah and his brother, Jonathan, then just a year and four months old. Angered by his miss, he bashed her with the stock of the rifle, then blindfolded her. The militants frogmarched her for two days until they got to a hut somewhere in a dense forest.

Boko Haram has a history of forcing women captives to convert to Islam and become the wives of its fighters.

“They told me that I have to renounce my faith...or they will kill me, so I will go and see the real god they serve, [and see] that Jesus is not Lord,” Mrs. Bitrus remembers.

For the two years she was kept in captivity, Mrs. Bitrus was mired in servitude: She washed, cooked, fetched water from a nearby stream and cleaned the radical fighters’ rooms. She begged to remain in servitude rather than to be married off to a Boko Haram militant.

One fighter grew weary of her refusals and pulled her child from her arms. He strutted to a nearby tributary of Lake Chad and threw Jonathan into the water.

“I never saw my child again,” Mrs. Bitrus says, without lifting her head.

She stuck to her faith, but the same fighter threatened to throw her surviving son, Zachariah, into the same river. This time Mrs. Bitrus quickly consented to be married and even took lessons in Islamic practice and worship.

“It was just a means of survival,” she says. “Even when Boko Haram used guns to force us to pray, I usually recited the ‘Hail Mary’ and the ‘Our Father’ inside me because I put my whole trust in God and I was never going to give up on my faith.”

Whenever the man she had been forced to marry attempted to have sexual relations with her, she got feces from her son and rubbed it all over her body in an effort to repulse him. One day, he got fed up with her resistance and raped her. After a year, she bore him a son.

Her escape came as a surprise. Nigerian security forces attacked the terrorist hideout; and as the terrorists fled, Mrs. Bitrus darted into the bush with her children. She trekked for 28 days until she reached the border with the Republic of Niger. She made contact with Nigerian security forces, who returned her to Maiduguri in September 2016.

Back in Maiduguri, she was worried her family would reject her. But that did not happen. “My family and neighbors were shouting, rejoicing and hugging me,” she says with a smile, before breaking into a happy laugh. “Even the bishop of Maiduguri Diocese visited and comforted me and offered me accommodation.”

“In the midst of all these things, one thing that remains very strong with us and which we feel is providential is the gift of our faith.”

Her husband, Zachariah Bitrus, 34, looks on without interrupting as she recounts her ordeal. After taking a deep sigh, he says he “was struggling to eat” when she was captured.

Now that she is back, Mr. Bitrus cannot hide his excitement: “I am grateful to God and very happy to see my son Zachariah and wife again. This is why I always go to Mass, because I find solace and happiness there.”

The Rev. John Bakeni, the secretary of Maiduguri Diocese, says the people here have demonstrated “faith that is uncommon.”

Leaning forward from his seat, he explains: “Living through this insurgency even when it was very active, even when the city was consistently under siege and threat, in the midst of explosions and deafening sounds of bomb explosions and gunshots, one thing that we witnessed was the resilience and courage of our people. They come to the church for their activities, and [the violence] never stopped them.”

Every person in the diocese and just about every property and building in it, including its churches, rectories, homes, businesses and schools, have been affected by the Boko Haram insurgency.

According to the Diocese of Maiduguri, nearly 100,000 parishioners, over 200 catechists, 30 nuns and 26 priests have been displaced by Boko Haram. More than 350 churches and mission stations have been destroyed; 30 schools, 17 rectories, six hospitals and four convents have been completely razed.

“There is no doubt that the church has gone through a lot in terms of persecution, in terms of destruction of physical structures,” says the 42-year-old Father Bakeni, who doubles as the administrator of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, also in Maiduguri. “But in the midst of all these things, one thing that remains very strong with us and which we feel is providential is the gift of our faith.”

A Defeated Boko Haram?

As the clock struck 7 a.m. on New Year’s Day, the Nigerian green-and-white flag fluttered across TV screens and the national anthem played in the background. “We have...beaten Boko Haram,” President Muhammadu Buhari, wearing a blue traditional robe and a hat, proclaimed toward the end of his New Year address.

The first Nigerian to defeat an incumbent in a presidential election, the 75-year-old leader came to power in 2015, promising to crush the militant group. The Nigerian army, with help from civilian vigilantes, has combined forces with the 8,700 members of the Multinational Joint Task Force—comprising security forces from neighboring Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger—in an effort to recapture territory from Boko Haram.

But even that effort has not meant the end of the deadly group. Sporadic attacks on far-flung communities are being reported, and suicide bombers continue to strike so-called soft targets. On Jan. 17, suicide bombers detonated explosives in a crowded open market in Maiduguri, killing 12 people and injuring 65.

On Feb. 19, a Boko Haram splinter group aligned with the Islamic State, abducted 110 students from an all-girls boarding school in Dapchi, a town in the northeastern state of Yobe. After negotiations with the government, the jihadists released nearly all the girls on March 21.

A displaced woman stands in front on an emergency shelter provided by Catholic Relief Services. (Linus Unah)

Even as new groups emerge, Boko Haram remains a threat in the entire Lake Chad region, which includes northeastern Nigeria. The BBC reported in January that the group is “as lethal as ever,” citing a spike in attacks and killings between 2016 and 2017.

Borno State, which borders Cameroon, Chad and Niger, is the worst affected by Boko Haram violence, and Maiduguri was once the epicenter of the insurgency. Today, as tens of thousands of internally displaced people troop into the city, its population has doubled to two million, as those fleeing violence seek refuge in overcrowded camps and urban communities willing to host families displaced by the violence.

Despite the efforts made by the Nigerian government and international partners, the humanitarian crisis in the northeast “remains severe,” says Samantha Newport, the Nigerian spokesperson for the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

In the three most affected states—Borno, Adamawa and Yobe—7.7 million people remain in dire need of humanitarian assistance, and half of them are children, according to O.C.H.A.

“This crisis is a protection crisis first and foremost that is closely linked to food scarcity. However, civilians also continue to bear the brunt of a conflict that has led to widespread forced displacement, and we hope that a peaceful solution is on the horizon,” Ms. Newport says.

Is Boko Haram defeated, as Nigerian authorities claim? A recent discussion on the popular “Good Morning Nigeria” show on state-run TV between security analysts and Maj. Gen. Rogers Ibe Nicholas, the commander of Nigeria’s operations against the jihadists, offers some clues.

“The insurgents have been weakened but not defeated,” Maj. Gen. Nicholasacknowledged during the show on March 22.

Diocese of the Displaced

Msgr. Oliver Doeme’s ascendancy as bishop of the Diocese of Maiduguri came in 2009, when the insurgency was first taking hold. It was not the best time to shepherd a flock in the Muslim-majority northern part of the country, as Christians soon became gravely threatened by Boko Haram terror.

Since the insurgency began, Bishop Doeme has helped more than two dozen displaced priests continue their ministry in other cities and nearby towns. The bishop also pays the tuition fees for dozens of children affected by the crisis. He has been visiting much of northern Adamawa State, where more than a dozen communities have been recaptured by the army. During these pastoral visits, he preaches reconciliation, forgiveness and acceptance and encourages church members never to lose their faith and trust in God.

Mrs. Bitrus and her family live on property provided by the bishop of Maiduguri Diocese. The camp—at an uncompleted one-story building meant to serve as secretariat of the diocese—is home to nearly 100 displaced parishioners. Bishop Doeme supports the group through donations raised among Catholics all across Nigeria.

All the displaced people have a similar, forlorn story to tell: the gunshots that ruptured the quiet of their communities, the shrieks of people being slaughtered, the flight to safer towns and cities with little food or water, the children who died of starvation along the way, and the suffering that envelops them as they wake every morning in Maiduguri.

All the displaced people have a similar, forlorn story to tell: the gunshots that ruptured the quiet of their communities, the shrieks of people being slaughtered.

Since February 2008, Mathew Biru had served as a catechist at St. Pius Church in the town of Baga, nearly 125 miles from Maiduguri. Mr. Biru recalls Baga as a boisterous town with big markets and three Catholic churches that were “full of members.”

On Jan. 3, 2015, the fishing town on the shores of Lake Chad was raided by Boko Haram fighters. For more than two days, the radical militants went on a killing spree that spilled over to nearby Doron Baga village and put thousands of buildings to flame. When the orgy of violence finally ended, an estimated 2,000 people had been killed.

As the rampage occurred, Mr. Biru, a father of six, hid in his house until nightfall. Fortunately, he had moved his family to Maiduguri days before the attack. As darkness fell, he cautiously made his way out through his backyard and escaped into an open field. After three days in the bush, he found his way to Maiduguri. He has been reunited with his family and now works as a catechist on the outskirts of the city.

“Boko Haram burnt down all the three Catholic churches in Baga,” Mr. Biru, 47, says. “We are not better than those who died; it is just a miracle that we survived. That is more reason why we have to serve God wholeheartedly.”

A severely malnourished boy has his arm measured at a health clinic on Jan. 17 at a camp in Maiduguri, Nigeria (CNS photo/TRF-Kieran Guilbert, Reuters)

Blessing James, who fled Baga during the attack, now lives at the secretariat with her nine children and husband. “We have no money, nowhere to go to, not enough food, no jobs, just nothing,” Mrs. James, 32, says. “But we have God and the bishop who encourages us always and helps us with whatever he has.”

Widowed by the insurgency in 2015, Ruth Albert comes to St. Hilary’s for Mass every day because “it is the only home where I feel secure.” Mrs. Albert says her family is “suffering a lot.” She was forced to work outside the home, in home cleaning and laundry services, to provide for six children.

“[My husband] was always providing all our needs and paying our children’s school fees, but now that he is no more, I struggle to provide my children’s needs.” Mrs. Albert lowers her head as she speaks and brushes her skirt against her face to wipe off tears.

Father Bakeni understands her pain. “We have lost almost everything,” he says, “but one thing we never lost was our faith. That was the only thing that remained with us, and that was the only thing we had to hold onto.”

The people still remain strong. “It’s nothing but faith, courage and determination to live for the Gospel, and even if it means giving our own lives for it, we were ready at some point,” Father Bakeni says.

He thinks that there might after all be a connection between poverty and people’s steadfastness in serving God. Whenever he wants to expound on this point, Father Bakeni reaches up from his seat, energized, arms outstretched. “Suffering calls one to reflect on life, to look up to something for solace, for comfort and for solution,” he says, though he is quick to add that suffering is not a sacrament.

Father Bakeni believes that Africans are easily inclined to God when in distress. This might not be “logical” to a Westerner, he says, but “if you look at it closely when people are very comfortable, sometimes the tendency is that God doesn’t occupy much space in their own lives.”

Attacks at Mass

The church in Maiduguri has not been the only one to experience bomb attacks during Mass.

On Christmas morning in 2011, congregants at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Madalla, near the Nigerian capital of Abuja, were spilling out when a bomb exploded and killed more than 30 people. Before the end of the day, attacks on other churches in four other cities left at least 50 injured and more than 10 dead.

In 2012, there were more explosions in St. John’s Catholic Church in the northeastern Nigerian state of Bauchi and two in northwestern Kaduna State (Kings Catholic Church in Zaria and St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Malali village). Some 20 people died in these attacks, and 140 were wounded.

In the retaliatory attacks that followed the bombings in Kaduna, angry Christian youths yanked Muslims from their cars and killed them. It was feared that the reprisals could trigger widespread sectarian conflict. Father Bakeni says such retaliatory attacks were “few,” adding that Christians more often “were at the receiving end” of reprisals.

Father Bakeni says churches were targeted at the inception of the insurgency largely because of the ideology that drove the campaign. Boko Haram, roughly “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language, launched its campaign by opposing contemporary education in Nigeria.

He says Boko Haram sees Christians as “infidels” and connects Christianity to the advance of secular education and Western culture in Nigeria. “Boko Haram lumped these institutions together because they say [Western] missionaries brought Western education,” he says. In a campaign focused on fighting Western values, the militants perceive attacks on schools and churches as legitimate, he explains.

In a campaign focused on fighting Western values, the militants perceive attacks on schools and churches as legitimate.

As of last fall, the radical Islamist group had destroyed 1,400 schools, killing more than 2,295 teachers and displacing 19,000 teachers.

Religion, it seems, comes in handy as a rationale for its attacks. “Anything that is fought under a religious banner evokes emotion and sympathy, and it kind of gives it credibility and justification,” Father Bakeni says. He says most of the conflict in northern Nigeria is “clearly religious conflict” because places of worship are often targeted and people are killed or maimed for their religion.

This does not occur only among the region’s Christians. Suicide bombers have also detonated bombs in mosques and attacked Muslim religious and traditional leaders who challenged their campaign of terror. In November 2017, a bomb attack in a mosque in the town of Mubi in Adamawa State killed at least 50 people. And in May 86 more died in Mubi after a mosque and market were attacked by suicide bombers.

But beyond religion, Father Bakeni reasons that there could be other underlying drives of the insurgency, including “social, political and economic” factors such as poverty, unemployment and long-running dissatisfaction with the political class.

A Rapid Response Force

The rapid rebuilding of many of the churches and schools in Maiduguri belies the destruction the diocese has experienced. It seems the insurgency has in the end created a deeper sense of unity and collaboration among Catholics in Nigeria, and many have been generous in their support. After Boko Haram raided communities and forced tens of thousands to flee, Catholic churches in other Nigerian states and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria assisted the Maiduguri Diocese with financial aid, food and more. The clergy from Maiduguri, who toured several archdioceses and dioceses across Nigeria to appeal for support, were usually well received and assisted without hesitation.

The bulk of the diocesan humanitarian intervention is executed by its Justice, Development and Peace Commission, incorporated in Nigeria as a Catholic nonprofit that is part of a wider service network of the church here. In Maiduguri, the J.D.P.C. provides humanitarian relief for the poor and promotes rural development as well as peacebuilding.

The Rev. Timothy Cosmos Danjuma is the coordinator of J.D.P.C. in Maiduguri Diocese. Father Danjuma moved to Maiduguri three years ago after Boko Haram fighters invaded his parish, St. Pius XI Catholic Church in Muvudi, a village in northern Adamawa State.

With a team of 35 paid workers and 100 volunteers, the J.D.P.C. periodically distributes food and relief materials such as mats, buckets, soap and mosquito nets.

“The last time we distributed relief was in December 2017, and we reached 1,017 households irrespective of religion,” Father Danjuma says. The nonprofit serves four Christian camps, including the internally displaced people at the diocese secretariat and at the Christian Association of Nigeria camp in Wulari.

Catholic Relief Services has been working to rebuild the lives and livelihoods of internally displaced people scattered across many camps in the city.

The J.D.P.C. has been rebuilding churches and schools and providing relief for displaced people with partners, including Misereor, an antipoverty group sponsored by the German Catholic bishops; Missio, the Catholic Church’s official charity for overseas missions, operating from London; the U.S. human rights nongovernmental organization Christian Solidarity International; and Caritas Nigeria, the official relief arm of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria.

The German-based international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need also provided a grant of $75,000 early last year for 5,000 widows and 15,000 orphans who are under the care of the Diocese of Maiduguri. And Catholic Relief Services provides fees, textbooks and uniforms for nearly 100 children who are Catholics, according to the J.D.P.C.

Since May 2015, C.R.S. has also collaborated with the U.S. Agency for International Development to distribute more than 8,500 electronic vouchers to displaced Christians and Muslims to enable them buy food and household supplies in local markets.

“This card has changed my life. I can buy rice, maize and many other things like Omo [a local detergent] with this card,” says Yakura Aisami, who lives with her six children at a tent provided by C.R.S. in Muna camp on the outskirts of the city.

C.R.S. has also been working to rebuild the lives and livelihoods of internally displaced people scattered across many camps in the city. It not only provides shelter for them, but also distributes seeds, watering cans, hoes and rakes so they can start farming again within the security of the camp.

Father Bakeni says these international partners are their “source of strength and courage” and have helped the church in Maiduguri to “see meaning and value in our faith.”

He says, however, it is “very sad” that the church barely gets any assistance from the Nigerian government and has come to rely on the international relief.

A Prayer of Hope

Around 6 p.m. on a Monday evening in mid-January at the compound of the Maiduguri Diocese secretariat, children in worn-out jerseys and T-shirts play in the sand behind St. Hilary’s Catholic Church. At the secretariat entrance, an elderly woman tells anyone who cares to listen that she has not had any food since morning. “Please buy me food,” she says to a middle-aged woman who is walking into the camp.

Inside the compound, people are beginning to form a circle with rosary chaplets with white beads dangling from their hands. With hands clasped together and eyes fixed on the ground, 12-year-old Ladi Iliya makes the sign of the cross and intones in Hausa: “In the name of the Father….” The crowd quickly joins in and echoes: “...and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.”

It is a routine here for all the people to gather to say the rosary every day except Sundays.

Magdaline Patrick says the rosary has become “a part of us now” and “they more we pray it, our hope and faith remains strong.” Ms. Patrick fled after the militants attacked the remote Gwoza area of Borno State and raided the Police Mobile Force training camp in the town in August 2014. The memories linger, the pains almost suffocates her, and the current anguish stemming from her hand-to-mouth existence makes her want to give up.

But beyond the chatter and buzz of children shouting and clapping and singing around the building, there is much more to this camp little noticed from the outside. Everything they do here, from sharing food to praying together every day and attending Mass, is a form of encouragement, renewal and hope.

Main image: A security guard checks a handheld metal detector outside St. Hillary's Catholic Church in Maiduguri, Nigeria. Guards have intercepted suicide bombers attempting to enter the church compound. (Linus Unah)

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Zara Brown
2 months ago

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