21 April 2016
Violence against Christians in Nigeria
Parliament saw, more than 50 MPs and peers and fill a committee room for a briefing by Open Doors on the persecution of Christian in Northern Nigeria. The audience included Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn MP and Desmond Swayne MP, the Minister of State for International Development.
The briefing on 13 April was hosted by Fiona Bruce MP who opened the meeting by speaking of her personal experience of visiting Nigeria in February in her role on the Select Committee for International Development.
The first guest speaker was Rev. Musa Bala*, a pastor of a church in Keffi, Nigeria, and who had experienced a Fulani extremist attack. He and his wife had been away on that particular day but many churches in their village were burned down and many Christians had been brutally killed. He said that Fulani attacks occurred mainly in North Central Nigeria and that persecution is ongoing with an absence of justice. "Our constitution guarantees liberty, but we don't have liberty," he said. "Please help us speak to our government" was the appeal he made.
Arne Mulders*, the Open Doors Research Manager for West and Central Africa also spoke at the event. He is the author of 'Crushed but not Defeated: The Impact of Persistent Violence on the Church in Northern Nigeria'and outlined some key findings. There are 30 million plus Christians in Northern Nigeria and they are the targets of many attacks. From 2006-14, an estimated 9-11,500 Christians were killed. Some 13,000 churches have been destroyed or abandoned.
In 2000, Sharia law was implemented in 12 northern states which gave rise to fear among Christians and has also contributed to the current crisis. Since then religious violence has been growing leaving 1.3 million Christians displaced.
Nigeria has the largest population of any country in Africa and is comprised of 400 different ethnic groups, each having its own specific language, social customs, and beliefs. The state can be divided into two zones – the North and the South. Understanding some of the demographic make-up of the North will also help shed light on the conflicts that are currently going on. There are three main ethnic groups in the North all of which share a belief in Islam. While there is a pre-dominance of Hausa Fulani Muslims there, Christians make up roughly a third of the population.
The main perpetrators of much of the violence are radical Islamic groups such as Boko Haram, armed Muslim Fulani herdsmen and the northern Muslim political and religious elite. Though the violence of the Fulani herdsmen is sometimes overlooked because of Boko Haram, they have an intensity of killing which must also be addressed. Overall, the magnitude of the problem is very large. Arne told those attending that "Segregation is growing day by day." In large part he was referring perhaps to the North/South, Muslim/Christian divide as Muslims seek to protect their identity, wanting to live in Muslim society under Sharia law.
Sharia law in Northern Nigeria places restrictions on the activities of Christians and churches. It is also very strict and the punishments are severe - public flogging for drinking alcohol, amputation for stealing, and stoning to death for adultery.
In such a context, and has been seen in the history of this country – religion becomes a political tool. While initially people segregated themselves by religion to have communities of people who held similar religious beliefs, the elites have since then taken advantage. Ike Chidi commented "Political actors have turned religious terrain into battle ground for contesting perceived marginalization and to gain political recognition and support from their communities".
The level of violence and the impact it has is devastating not only to the Christians who go through the traumatic experience but for the prospects of the future of the nation. Children grow up in this violent environment, witnessing it daily. It can undoubtedly be said that the implication include death, economic, educational, displacement, widowhood, and psychological.
The third speaker was Rev Joseph John*, a pastor in Damatura, Nigeria. His state, Yobe has had ongoing attacks by Boko Haram where his church was destroyed and many members were killed. He strikingly said he was "not telling a story, but a reality". Though people are killed and wounded around him in these attacks, the voices of Christians are not heard. He described how they went to try and talk to many different governors who refused to listen and where there is discrimination and segregation and dangers for those who are Christians.
A Guardian article discusses the issue:
"There is no denying the reality of religious persecution throughout the world. It certainly happens here in Nigeria. But the bare statistics don't communicate the full socioeconomic and political context. If we oversimplify the story of death and destruction happening far away, we risk desensitising and distancing people, which is the exact opposite of what reports such as Open Doors' set out to do."
Zoe Smith, Head of Advocacy for Open Doors UK & Ireland, ended the April 13 briefing by calling on the parliamentarians to act on behalf of persecuted believers in Nigeria, asking them to urge the Nigerian government and the local governments of the Nigerian states to defend freedom of religion and belief, and to ensure that vital aid is reaching displaced Christians and is being evenly distributed.
*names changed for security reasons
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(Written by Gemma Klopper - currently a first year at Durham University studying Politics and Geography in a combined degree, she has a particular interest in human rights.)
(Photo credit Boko Hazards 20- used under CC license)