'The Time of Great Loss': Churches Burn in Nigeria

'The Time of Great Loss': Churches Burn in Nigeria

April 26, 2011

Foreign observers have called Nigeria's recent presidential election one of the fairest in the country's history. But the international vote of confidence has done little to dispel the violence resulting from the controversial results. Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, was been re-elected president last week– and bitter violence against Christians has ensued.

“I live in a place that is totally surrounded by non-Christians, right inside a church, which is usually a prime target,” says Rev. Yunusa Nmadu, CEO of Christian Solidarity Worldwide in Nigeria. “In the night we try to keep vigil, to be alert in case of any attempt to come for us so that we may escape.” Police have protected him and the church for the a few days, allowing him some sleep. No matter what, though, he says, “Above all God is protecting us.”

‘Well Coordinated’ Attacks

International Christian Concern, a nonprofit organization working on behalf of persecuted Christians worldwide, reports that 40 churches have been burnt to the ground in Nigeria, with over 100 Christians dead as a result of the attacks.

"We are deeply saddened by the killings of Christians and attacks on their property in northern Nigeria,” says Jonathan Racho of International Christian Concern. “The attacks seem to be well coordinated and the Nigerian government utterly failed to protect the Christian against the Muslims.”

Racho believes that Christians in the West can and must get involved in helping Nigerian believers in the aftermath of the attacks. “We urge Christians around the world to contact their governments and ask their officials to put pressure on Nigeria to protect Christians and bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice,” he says.

Unchecked Violence

Faith McDonnell is the Director of Religious Liberty Programs at the Institute for Religion and Democracy. She says that right now much of the violence is being perpetrated by mobs of angry youths.

“Christians are paying the price for the angry displeasure of northern Nigerians at the election of Christian President Goodluck Jonathan earlier this week,” she says. “Because so much violence against Christians has taken place without anyone being held accountable for it and punished, particularly in the northern and central states, radical Islamists continue to rage against Christians.”

Easter dawned differently in Nigeria in the wake of violent attacks, as curfews were observed and debris cleanup was underway. “We have lost a lot of our churches, properties and Christian brethren in the cause of the violence,” Rev. Yunusa says, adding that they have “yet to compile [their] loses.”

A  Portrait of Persecution

For Rev. Yunusa and others, scenes of burned-down churches, wrecked homes, and injured believers are not new. Attacks have rocked Nigeria's Christian community for years, costing both livelihoods and lives. Church bombings on Christmas Eve set off a pattern of violence between Christians and Muslims, fueling anger that persists to this day. “The greatest challenge of the Christians in Northern Nigeria is that of persecution,” Rev. Yunusa says, “including discrimination, marginalization, economic deprivation and, like the present situation, violence of all forms.”

Faith McDonnell agrees. “Christians in Nigeria, like Christians throughout Africa – and, to a lesser extent, all over the world -- are facing a tremendous challenge from the continuing push for Islamization -- sometimes expressed through violent jihad and other destructive acts,” she says.

McDonnell recalls the situation of believers in Ivory Coast, as an example of the pressure faced by Christians throughout Africa. “More recently, the massacres in Ivory Coast, regardless of whether or not President Gbabgo truly lost the election legitimately, were carried out against innocent people, mostly Christians, by the supporters of Islamist Ouattara. There is a systematic plan to increase the influence and power of Islam in all the countries of Africa,” she says.

Blurred Lines

Rev. Yunusa has his own viewpoint on the onslaught of radical Islam throughout the continent.

"It is interesting that what started as a political crisis ended up with the burning of churches and mosques,” he says. “Usually this is the trend and this is because for [many Muslims], politics and religion are inseparable. I call on the federal government to not just look for the perpetrator alone but their faceless sponsors too, who always get away with their evil.”

“It is complicated,” McDonnell says. “Some would say it is simple persecution -- Muslims persecuting Christians. Others would say it is not religious at all -- it is political. I think that the truth is somewhere in the middle. The election of a Christian politician again is [apparently] an offense against Islam, but the reaction is cloaked with more acceptable reasons for protesting the election, such as 'election fraud.'”

Solidarity in a Time of Loss

McDonnell recommends that Christians take time to pray for persecuted Christians in Nigeria, as well as “learn more by following the reports of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom to make sure that we are accurately reporting the situation.” She adds that supporting Nigerian churches and Christian groups working in Nigeria is vital. International Christian Concern and Christian Solidarity Worldwide are among numerous organizations involved in supporting the suffering church in Nigeria.

Rev. Yunusa says that Nigerian Christians need the prayers of believers around the world. “The Church in the West can come alongside by speaking up for us in every way [available] to them,” he says. “They can come alongside us too, in solidarity in the time of this great loss.”

Kristin Butler has visited with Christian communities throughout the Middle East and Asia. She is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to religious freedom, human rights, and philanthropy. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email kristin.wright.butler@gmail.com.