Renewed Islamist violence in Nigeria targets Christians
By Geoffrey P. Johnston | Tuesday, August 25, 2009
A recent bloody Islamist uprising has escalated tensions between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, a west African country that is struggling to cope with the spread of an increasingly radical version of Islam in its northern states.
On July 26, Boko Haram, the most radical and powerful of Nigeria's Islamist sects, launched coordinated attacks on government security forces and Christian communities in the predominantly Muslim north, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 800 people, most of whom were militant fighters.
However, the World Council of Churches reports that more than 50 Christians were also killed during the week-long revolt. And according to published reports, at least 20 churches were burned by militants and three pastors were allegedly beheaded by Boko Haram for refusing to convert to Islam.
The inter-religious violence, which was strongly condemned by Christian and Muslim religious leaders from horn of Africa countries, is not new to Nigeria.
"Since 1999, there have been 13,000 deaths in connection with various sectarian conflictsnot to mention countless examples of people being injured and property being destroyed," says Leonard Leo, chair of the Washington, DC-based United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which was established by the US Congress in 1998 to advise the federal government on matters of religious liberty around the globe.
"Unfortunately, there hasn't been any serious investigation of any of these instances of violence," says Leo, "and that creates room for Boko Haram and other extremist groups to exist."
Nigeria, which has an estimated 140 million people, making it Africa's most populous country, is almost evenly split along religious lines. The northern part of country is predominantly Muslim; the south is mostly Christian. However, both regions have significant religious minority populations.
Even though Christians are under constant threat from radical Islamist sects in many parts of Nigeria, some worry that Canadians seem indifferent to the suffering of Christians there.
"I have never seen a demonstration or outcry about the sufferings of Christians in Nigeria," says Emeka Njoku, a Nigerian Christian who fled to Canada when Sharia law was imposed in 12 northern states nine years ago.
"I once quarrelled with a priest and stopped going to that particular church because the priest kept lecturing us about the plight of [the] Palestinians," says the former director of a tertiary hospital in northern Nigeria. "I asked him about the plight of Christians in Nigeria and other countries where Christians are victimized. He told me that was a different matter."
Boko Haram is vehemently anti-Christian and also opposes any form of Western education.
"When we were in the north," reports Leo, "we learned of situations where the Hisbah, the state-supported religious police, were enforcing Sharia principles on non-Muslims." For example, Christian schools in Muslim-majority states "need to have a Muslim vice-principal, which is a form of oversight and control which the Christians in the north find disturbing."
Nigeria's Christian community does not always turn the other cheek when attacked. For example, in February 2006 the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Peter J. Akinola, issued a controversial statement in response to the ongoing "killing, maiming and destruction of Christians and their property by Muslim fanatics and fundamentalist at the slightest or no provocation at all."
Akinola reminded Muslims that "they do not have the monopoly of violence in this nation." And he warned that his organization "may no longer be able to contain our restive youths should this ugly trend [of violence against Christians] continue." The next day Christians mobs in the predominantly Christian city of Onitsha reportedly killed 20 Muslims. Some Western commentators blamed the Anglican archbishop's incendiary rhetoric for the violence.
But Akinola, in an interview with Christianity Today, claimed that he did not incite the killings; he also accused the Western press of attempting to demonize him.
The Christian mobs at Onitsha, Akinola said, were responding to Muslim rioting a few days prior in the largely Muslim city of Maiduguri, where 30 churches were destroyed and nearly 20 Christians were killed in a rampage sparked by the so-called Danish cartoons controversy.
Hope for peace?
Is there any hope that Nigeria's Christians and Muslims can live in peace and equality? Segun Olude, a Nigerian-Canadian who now calls Winnipeg home, seems to thinks so. "It is not uncommon in Nigeria to find that some families are composed of both Muslims and Christians, yet share a common language and set of cultural beliefs."
Segun, who along with and his wife Titi founded Promiseland Ministries, a Christian community development organization, travels to rural areas in western Nigeria at least once a year.
But with radical Islam on the march, what does the future hold for Nigeria?
"In Nigeria," says Segun, "Islamic leaders and heads of Christian denominations have always had dialogue around this and other issues about peace and harmony, and one hopes that they would continue."
Geoffrey P. Johnston is an independent journalist based in eastern Ontario.