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Kevin ClarkeFebruary 15, 2024
Flowers lie on caskets during a funeral Mass in the the parish hall of St. Francis Xavier Church in Owo, Nigeria, June 17, 2022. The Mass was for at least 50 victims killed in a June 5 attack by gunmen during Mass at the church. (CNS photo/Temilade Adelaja, Reuters)

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Two Nigerian clergymen have run out of patience with Western assessments of the violence being experienced by Christians in Nigeria, informed one time too many that the conflict is an outcome of herder-farmer tensions or “eco-violence” driven by climate change.

These are insights from Africa-area specialists that leave Bishop Wilfred Chikpa Anagbe, C.M.F., of the embattled Diocese of Makurdi in Nigeria’s Benue State, and the Rev. Remigius Ihyula sputtering in exasperation.

“How do you say because you have issues of climate change or economic inequalities that you go killing people in this manner? Butchering people and destroying everything.”

“Tell me,” Father Ihyula says, “how does climate change drive someone to hack a person to death with a machete?” How does it explain, he asks, someone blasting unarmed villagers in the back with an AK-47 as they seek to escape a terrorist raid?

“How do you say because you have issues of climate change or economic inequalities that you go killing people in this manner? Butchering people and destroying everything. Does that make sense?”

The two churchmen have a more direct and worrisome explanation for the violence that has plagued Benue and other Nigerian states, claiming the lives of more than 52,000 Christians since 2009: It is the result of a calculated campaign of territorial conquest, displacement and forced conversion, sponsored by Islamist terrorist groups and continuing with the complicity of officials at the highest levels of the Nigerian government and military.

“It is Islamic jihad,” Father Ihyula says, noting that this is frequently how the perpetrators of the violence themselves characterize the aggression on Nigerian social media and radio. None of this is subtle, the two clergymen insist. Islamist extremists in the region speak openly of the strategy. “We live side by side with them; we hear them,” Father Ihyula says.

Speaking from New York’s Holy Family Catholic Church in the shadow of the United Nations on Feb. 12, Bishop Anagbe asks why Nigerian leaders “sit and watch others killing us, and they’re not doing anything? All these years, over a decade now, nobody has been arrested, nobody has been prosecuted.” It is jihad and genocide, he charges. The kidnapping and murder of Christians around the country, the clergymen say, continue with near impunity.

Though sporadic attacks are almost a daily reality, the last large-scale atrocity against Christians occurred over Christmas, when scores of villages were raided by Fulani attackers and hundreds of villagers murdered; thousands fled. Now he worries that more attacks may come during the next major Christian celebration at Easter.

“Tell me, how does climate change drive someone to hack a person to death with a machete?”

Father Ihyula and Bishop Anagbe also intend their visit to the United States as an appeal for humanitarian assistance desperately needed in Benue State. They report that more than 2.2 million internally displaced people have fled Fulani raids, establishing primitive camps in Makurdi that are bereft of adequate sanitation and reliable supplies of food and clean water. Worse, many camps are unprotected by the Nigerian military and remain vulnerable to more attacks.

In analyses of the ongoing crisis in the Western media, the attackers have been variously described as marauding bandits or Fulani pastoralists, driven to violence in disputes over land and cattle watering rights. Father Ihyula, who leads the Makurdi diocese’s Foundation for Justice, Development and Peace, wishes it were as simple as that.

If it were only about resources, he wryly notes, leaders of the competing communities could meet and hash out sharing arrangements. Instead, he says, Fulani raiders, many entering Nigeria from Chad, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, have razed villages, burned churches, killed priests and slaughtered villagers who are unable to defend themselves.

Government military and security forces may arrive in the wake of the violence, but they have been unable to neutralize the threat. Abandoned villages are being resettled by Fulani, he adds. The names of the villages have been altered and the lands entrusted to the authority of Muslim emirs.

Father Ihyula believes the displacement has accelerated in anticipation of an upcoming national census that may result in an undercount of Christians in disputed territory and, because of that undercount, the eventual establishment of Sharia law in regions once solidly Christian. Sharia law, applying to all residents regardless of faith, has been instituted in 12 northern Nigerian states.

“Every day the population of widows and orphans grows, creating a new generation of traumatized and uneducated Nigerians, who will have few options for their future.”

During the first months of the Biden administration, in a widely criticized move, Nigeria was dropped from the U.S. State Department’s annual list of “countries of particular concern,” nations around the world that warrant special diplomatic scrutiny because of systemic human rights and religious freedom abuses. Now Bishop Anagbe hopes to persuade the Biden administration to restore Nigeria to that list, noting how one Washington official recently seemed to dismiss the attacks on Christians as an “internal crisis.”

In Rwanda in 1994, he points out, “in the beginning it was a very quiet ‘internal crisis.’ Within a month, over 800,000 people were slaughtered.” U.S. officials at that time apologized for the inaction of the world community, vowing to never again stand on the sidelines of another genocide in Africa.

On Feb. 6 the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee endorsed House Resolution 82, instructing the U.S. State Department to restore Nigeria’s “particular concern” designation. Given the irrefutable evidence of the continuing violence against Christians, why has the State Department been reluctant to do so?

Business interests, security concerns and great-power politics may be playing a role. The two clergymen note that the “particular interest” designation complicates trade, aid and military cooperation and weapons deals with Nigeria. According to the State Department, Nigeria is the United States’ second-largest trading partner in Africa, with two-way trade of $11 billion in 2022. The United States is also one of the largest sources of foreign investment in Nigeria, and the U.S. Agency for International Development regularly commits more than $1 billion in annual assistance.

During a visit to Nigeria in January, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with senior government and military officials in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, but did not visit Benue or other states most affected by the violence. After meeting with Nigeria’s new president, Bola Tinubu, on Jan. 23, Mr. Blinken told reporters that the United States is determined to remain a strong security partner for Nigeria.

Fulani raiders, many entering Nigeria from Chad, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, have razed villages, burned churches, killed priests and slaughtered villagers who are unable to defend themselves.

In an email to America, a spokesperson said that the U.S. State Department “regularly engages the government of Nigeria, at all levels, to address religious freedom issues and to ensure that all human rights and fundamental freedoms are protected, including the freedom of religion or belief.”

The spokesperson said that after the State Department’s most recent review, Mr. Blinken determined that the status of religious freedom in Nigeria did not meet the threshold for designation as a country of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act, but had designated Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa as “Entities of Particular Concern” under the act.

The spokesperson said that the State Department continues to monitor “religious freedom dynamics” in Nigeria and remains concerned about “intercommunal conflicts” that target individuals or communities “based on religious identity, and about the effect of broader criminality and violence against members of religious communities.” The spokesperson identified the use and enforcement of blasphemy laws by some Nigerian state governments “against individuals expressing their beliefs or opinions about religion” as another area of concern, noting that the United States opposes blasphemy laws “and other laws that criminalize free expression.”

On Ash Wednesday, Bishop Anagbe addressed a House of Representatives subcommittee on African affairs. “Every day the population of widows and orphans grows, creating a new generation of traumatized and uneducated Nigerians, who will have few options for their future,” he said.

“As I visit the camps where people are suffering such inhumane conditions, causing further desolation and health problems, I am at a loss,” Bishop Anagbe said. “I do not know what to preach or how to console them. It is difficult to offer hope, but I will not abandon them.”

According to Father Ihyula, the diocese has had to cobble together aid as best it can from a number of sources. The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need has been a consistent support, he says, along with Doctors Without Borders and other relief groups, but the need in the camps remains significantly unaddressed and the Nigerian government response has been “a drop in the ocean.” In addition to the problems of hunger and sanitation, he says, many of the displaced are deeply traumatized by what they have experienced—“to see people butchered like animals, killed in that manner.”

“This is the modus operandi of the Fulani,” he explains. “They come to a village; they encircle the village, bring down everything that is living, from human beings to animals, destroy even the crop that is saved for the food…. And then the people have to run away—those who are able to survive—run away and find these [I.D.P. camps].”

Later, “you can’t get back to your farmland or to your ancestral home to rebuild because they are now occupying those places, and they have guns.”

Those villagers who do attempt to return are often hacked to death with machetes, Father Ihyula says. Videos of those gruesome scenes are quickly shared on social media—terrifying images, he says, meant to instill fear among surviving Christians so that they never return home.

More from America:

A Deeper Dive:


Christian persecution in Nigeria by the numbers

There are almost 103 million Christians in Nigeria, 47% of the country’s population of 222 million. Most Christians can be found in Nigeria’s south, with the north mostly populated by Muslims. Nigeria’s Middle Belt states, running across the middle of the nation and dividing the Muslim north from the Christian south, have been among the states the most afflicted by Islamist violence from Fulani militants and bandits and from Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province terrorists.

More than 52,000 Nigerian Christians have been murdered by Islamist militants since 2009. More than 30,000 were killed during the eight-year presidency of Muhammadu Buhari, who was often criticized for not doing more to combat growing insecurity in the country; 34,000 moderate Muslims have also died in Islamist attacks since 2009.

Over the same time period, 18,000 churches and 2,200 Christian schools in Nigeria were destroyed or damaged in Islamist attacks.

According to Open Doors, a U.K.-based advocacy group for persecuted Christians, “more believers are killed for their faith in Nigeria each year than everywhere else in the world combined.” It reports that 82% of Christians killed for faith reasons across the globe were in Nigeria.

Nigeria ranks 6th on Open Door’s World Watch List of states where Christians are most persecuted, behind North Korea, Somalia, Libya, Eritrea and Yemen. Nigeria accounted for 9 out of every 10 of religiously motivated killings in the World Watch List’s assessment of African nations in 2023.

The United Nations estimated that because of ongoing civil insecurity, protracted conflicts and their impact on food prices, more than 25 million people in Nigeria endured food insecurity in 2023—a 47% increase from the 17 million people at risk of going hungry in 2022.

Sources: Open Door, UNICEF, Intersociety

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