For Nigerian Christians, allegations of blasphemy against Islam can be a death sentence
Deborah Samuel Yakubu, a Christian university student in northern Nigeria, was attacked and killed in May by a mob of Muslim students and Islamic extremists. School officials and security officers at the Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto, Nigeria, were unable to save her from the mob who hunted her down after it was alleged that she had committed blasphemy against Islam in a posting in a WhatsApp group.
The killing provoked outrage across Nigeria and calls for the arrest of the perpetrators. But the arrest of the alleged ringleaders of the violence in turn provoked more protests demanding the release of the suspects.
The killing and the reaction to it offer a stark depiction of the volatile divisions between Nigeria’s Muslim and Christian communities. These tensions were stoked even higher just weeks after the mob murder by an attack by Islamic extemists on St. Francis Xavier Church in Owo, in the southwestern state of Ondo, that left more than 50 dead. On June 4 another “blasphemy killing” took place in Abuja when 30-year-old Ahmad Usman was stoned to death and then burned by a mob who believed he had spoken disrespectfully of the Prophet Mohammed and Allah.
The killing of Deborah Yakubu and the reaction to it offer a stark depiction of the volatile divisions between Nigeria’s Muslim and Christian communities.
In the aftermath of Ms. Yakubu’s killing, Christian leaders and religious groups have been speaking up about blasphemy and mob justice in Nigeria. “Most religions recommend that an offender should be reported to the legitimate authority to prescribe the corresponding punishments,” said the Rev. Cornelius Omonokhua. “None recommends extra-judicial killing or ‘jungle justice,’” he said. That local expression refers to the summary punishments meted out by Nigerians who are unwilling to turn criminal suspects over to police. Many believe a bribe is likely to secure a suspect’s release before a case can be adjudicated.
“The judgment of a sinner is the sole responsibility of God Almighty,” he said, not an angry mob on the street. Father Omonokhua is the executive secretary of the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council, which seeks to improve relations between the nation’s Christian and Muslim communities.
Father Omonokhua said that insufficient instruction can lead Islamic fundamentalists to take the law into their own hands, adding that the actions of poorly formed adherents can give Islam and all religion a bad image.
“Those who killed [Ms. Yakubu] must have studied religion under ignorant teachers who indoctrinated them with erroneous and subjective interpretations of the sacred [Islamic] texts,” he said. “This calls for religious re-education, de-radicalization and re-orientation to pave a short road to peaceful coexistence and a healthy society.”
Salis Abdulsalam, a Muslim, works to promote intercommunal relations in Jos, a city in Nigeria’s Central Plateau State, and organizes an annual soccer tournament between Muslims and Christians. He blames religious leaders for failing to address extremism, calling the problem “the height of spiritual failure.”
“Those who killed Ms. Yakubu must have studied religion under ignorant teachers who indoctrinated them with erroneous and subjective interpretations of the sacred texts.”
“Islam or Christianity should be able to address spiritual matters clearly on a moral basis, but there is this quest for [political] supremacy in religions, so the issue of spirituality is thrown aside,” he said, leading Nigerians “to the extreme, where people want to kill.”
He suggests that the nation’s spiritual leaders should be trained in peacemaking and reconciliation processes in addition to their religious studies.
Father Omonokhua said that some “false” preachers present a distorted concept of God in their teachings. “Every field of life necessarily calls for proper training and formation, and religion should not be different,” he said. “It is necessary for the religious preachers to be well formed in their own religions and the religion of others to prevent religious indoctrination and brainwashing.”
If young people are properly educated, he said, “they will be conscious of human rights and resist those who brainwash them…[and] conflict profiteers who finance violence. They will know that peace is a virtue that is deeply entrenched in Christianity and Islam.”
This is not the first attack on a Christian in Nigeria because of alleged blasphemy. In 2016, Eunice Elisha Olawale, a Christian evangelist, was killed by a mob enraged by her preaching on the streets of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. There have been no arrests despite calls for the prosecution of the perpetrators of this crime.
A Muslim community activist blames religious leaders for failing to address extremism, calling the problem “the height of spiritual failure.”
And on June 2, 2016, Bridget Agbahime was murdered after she was also suspected of blasphemy. While in this instance the killers were arrested, they were released five months later. The Muslim-controllled regional government declined to offer any explanation for their release.
Nigeria is deeply divided along religious lines between the Christian-dominated south and Muslim-dominated north. Political leaders often exacerbate religious tensions in the country, exploiting them for electoral gain. Now, as Nigeria readies for general elections in February 2023, interreligious tension is already mounting.
“Religious-motivated violence in Nigeria occurs as a result of people’s lack of understanding that we cannot fight for God; God is powerful enough to fight for Himself,” said Sister Eucharia Madueke, coordinator for the Washington-based Africa Faith and Justice Network. “When we kill in the name of God, we are destroying his creation.”
“The north-south dynamic playing now in the [political party] primaries is fanning the flames of religious divide, and I pray that this is addressed soon,” said Sister Madueke.
Religious violence and attacks against Christian communities are unfortunately common in Nigeria. A report by the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law shows that at least 3,462 Christians were murdered in Nigeria during the first 200 days of 2021. The society reports that 3,000 Christians were abducted in that timeframe and 300 churches attacked.
Last year, the religious freedom advocacy group International Christian Concerndesignated Nigeria one of the world’s top “Persecutors of the Year” because of the government’s tolerance of religious persecution. The I.C.C. report noted that Nigeria is the most dangerous place on earth for Christians, and an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria since 2000.
“The north-south dynamic playing now in the political party primaries is fanning the flames of religious divide, and I pray that this is addressed soon.”
Open Doors, a nondenominational mission that serves and supports persecuted Christians worldwide, ranks Nigeria as No. 7 on its World Watch List of 50 countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian. In the first three months of 2022, 896 Nigerian civilians were killed by extremist Islamic militants; hundreds of them were Christians murdered because of their faith, according to Open Doors.
In December 2019, the U.S. State Department placed Nigeria on its blacklist for engaging in or tolerating the severe violation of religious freedom, and in 2020, U.S. officials designated Nigeria a “country of particular concern” after a spike in religious violence and a wave of killings in the northern part of the country.
But less than a year later, in a move that stunned critics, Nigeria was dropped from the State Department list. Ms. Samuel’s death occurred just six months after that recasting of Nigeria’s status. International critics and the Christian Association of Nigeria said the killing is evidence that Nigeria should not have been removed.
To raise awareness on religious tolerance, inter-religious groups in Nigeria have been reaching out to de-radicalize young people, seeking to teach them how to work collaboratively to end extremism and violent religious conflicts, especially in the hard-hit north.
Sister Madueke recently hosted a workshop on deradicalization in northern Nigeria. Before the workshop, she held a virtual meeting with young people and community leaders to plan the program. After the peacemaking workshop, the participants, about 100 young people, resolved to form groups to go back to their communities and raise awareness on religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence.
Nigeria is ranked seventh on the World Watch List of 50 countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian.
Samuel Sunkur was one of the workshop’s participants. Mr. Sunkur, a Catholic, said the frequent attacks on Christians in Jos had led him to support defensive violence against Islamic extremism as the only path forward. But after completing the program, he has come to believe peace can be achieved through dialogue.
“When young people are frustrated and aggressive, they become violent,” Mr. Sunkur told America. “But becoming conscious and aware of these issues through workshops will make them accept peace and dialogue.”
Since it was established in 1983, the organization has been working with governments, activists and community leaders to promote peace and advance social justice in local communities. In January, Sister Madueke and her team organized a seminar to engage young people on religious violence, security and how to promote sustainable peace in their communities.
Sister Madueke said the workshop encourages young people to have “respect for [every] person no matter who the person is because this person is created in the Image of God.”
“We tell them that when the life of an individual is at stake, they must act and speak up to protect that life through dialogue.”
Sister Madueke said the effort is already making an impact. Workshop participants, she said, created a WhatsApp group chat where they talk about plans on reaching out to other Nigerian young people on peace building.
Father Omonokhua noted that without improved dialogue between Muslims and Christians, Nigeria will continue to experience religious-motivated hate and violence. To de-radicalize those who have grown up with a wrong understanding and interpretation of the holy scriptures, he said, religious scholars should participate in “theological exchange.”
To be effective, however, he said this should not be reduced to intellectual discourse but involve the active participation of community leaders and those at local community levels.
“One of the principles of inter-religious dialogue is to accept what unites us and tolerate other religions that may contradict our own,” he said. “Sincere dialogue with true exposition of the sacred texts can free religion from being used as an instrument of violence.”