On May 21, our American homeland survived another terrorist attack when the Syrian-born Adam Alsahli shot a sailor who was guarding the gate at a U.S. Naval base in Corpus Christi, Texas. Investigators found the now deceased Alsahli’s social media accounts containing voluminous Islamic religious posts. The translation of his Twitter profile statement, which is in Arabic, reads, “I love the Mujahideen, I am not one of them, and my sword is on the necks of those who stab them.”
There was only one victim, the sailor who was later released from the hospital. While we can thank our blessings the terrorist attack wasn’t worse, the Corpus Christi shooting is a reminder that we, especially Christians, are continual targets of jihadists. Yet no other place in the world has been more dangerous for those who profess Jesus Christ as their Savior than Nigeria.
The International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety), a Nigerian NGO, reported in March: “In Nigeria no fewer than 20 clergymen including at least eight Catholic Priests/Seminarians were hacked to death in the past 57 months and not less than 50 abducted or kidnapped.” And just over a week ago, the Christian Post stated that at least 23 Christians were killed in a spate of attacks carried about by Muslim jihadists in Kaduna state, (northern) Nigeria.
If anyone recalls, it’s now been over four months since the kidnapping by Muslim militants of four seminarians from Good Shepherd Seminary in Kaduna state took place. While three of the abducted were eventually released, the Nigerian Catholic community was praying against hope to have the fourth young man, Michael Nnadi, back with them. Sadly, days after the abduction, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of the Diocese of Sokoto said in a statement: “With a very heavy heart, I wish to inform you that our dear son, Michael, was murdered by the bandits on a date we cannot confirm. He and the wife of a doctor were arbitrarily separated from the group and killed. The Rector identified the corpse this afternoon.”
Michael’s ending, tragic as it may have been, was one that exemplified the same courage demonstrated by the martyrs of old. His account was completely different than that of Silvia Romano, a twenty-five-year-old Italian national who was freed this month after being kidnapped in November 2018 in Chakama, Kenya, by al-Shabaab jihadists. Romano, a trained medical practitioner who had worked as a volunteer for the Italian charity called Africa Milele, eventually converted to Islam and announced upon her return to Italy that her new name is Aisha—after Muhammad’s child bride, who was nine when the Prophet of Islam “consummated” the marriage while he was in his fifties.
According to Mustafa Mohammed, one of Michael’s kidnappers who has robbed, kidnapped, tortured and killed many Christians and Muslims for the last four or so years, the young seminarian—instead of submitting to Islam—insisted that his captors repent and turn their lives around from their evil ways. This became the ultimate reason why he was killed in captivity. Also murdered with Michael by the same criminals was Bolanle Ataga, who had been kidnapped along with her two daughters. She was slaughtered by their leader because she refused to be raped by him.
Christians in northern Nigeria find themselves in such a difficult predicament as a result of the British colonialism that was instituted after the Brits conquered the extant one-hundred-year-old Caliphate established by Usman dan Fodio (1804–1903).
As explained by Bishop Hassan Kukah, Catholic missionaries during the British occupation were seen by the colonialists as an intrusion into the sacred space of Islam. Simultaneously, the educated Christian laity were seen as irritants, challenging the racism and injustice embedded in colonialism, thereby slowing down the English Crown’s exploitation and trade.
The British left a legacy of a feudal architecture of power that has been exploited throughout the country by Nigeria’s corrupt and incompetent ruling Islamic elite, such as their taxation of the non-Muslim populations.
In the north, where Muslims are an overwhelming majority of the population, the Islamic elite has continued to manipulate the deep religiosity of its members by presenting themselves as defenders of the faith, a strategy that has been employed for political mobilization. In their ignorance, most Muslims have continued to see education as a Western ploy to corrode their religion and culture. This, inadvertently at least, coerces them to reject overtures of peace, such as the one made by Pope Saint John Paul II when he addressed the Muslim youth in Morocco on August 19, 1985.
In that speech, the Polish pontiff reaffirmed that living in true harmony with God and neighbor requires not just interaction with man but respect for his rights, too. And this “respect and dialogue requires reciprocity in all spheres, especially in that which concerns basic freedoms, more particularly religious freedom. They favor peace, especially in that which concerns the peoples. They help to resolve together the problems of today’s men and women, especially of the young.” As one can gather, this is an impossibility for the aforementioned Islamists.
It must be made clear that numerous Muslims throughout the world, who have also been victims of jihadists, practice their religion in peace. Nevertheless, the norm of Islam prescribes violence against those classified as infidels.
Christine Douglass-William, author of the book The Challenge of Modernizing Islam, explains that “so-called radical jihad groups which practice violence in the name of their religion are fully backed by Quranic texts that provide them with ideological fuel, and fire them up with religious zeal to continue their activities.” They use verses such as Sura 4, 95:
Not equal are those believers remaining [at home]—other than the disabled—and the mujaheddin, [who strive and fight] in the cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives. Allah has preferred the mujaheddin through their wealth and their lives over those who remain [behind], by degrees. And to both Allah has promised the best [reward]. But Allah has preferred the mujaheddin over those who remain [behind] with a great reward.
Michael’s and Bolanle’s lives were an inheritance of the missionaries who brought the Catholic faith to Nigeria. They remained unshaken in facing peril as they observed what our Savior ordered us to do: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Yet just as the efforts at education and the conversion of local people regularly set the missionaries against the colonial state—so much so that they were not permitted by the British to enter there until the 1930s—Christians in northern Nigeria, as in other parts of the world, have been left to fend for themselves ever since.
Unfortunately, politicians, churchmen, and media outlets have focused more on patting Muslims on the back rather than getting them to effectively address the massacres committed in the name of their religion. Such was the case when the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, on behalf of Pope Francis, issued a statement at the start of the Islamic season of Ramadan—a time in which Muslims are exhorted to renew and deepen their devotion to Allah.
The communication, addressed to his “dear Muslim brothers and sisters,” said that it is “a time for spiritual healing and growth, of sharing with the poor, of strengthening bonds with relatives and friends,” as well as an opportunity for “your Christian friends” to “further strengthen our relationships with you.” Interestingly, ever since the Muslim holy season began on April 23, there have been over one hundred jihadist attacks that have killed more than five hundred people.
In the public eye, the Catholic hierarchy appears to suggest that there’s no need to bring the Lord’s message of sanctification to Muslims, thereby denying them the opportunity to embrace the fullness of who God is. One can then understand, during the present coronavirus chaos, why greater emphasis has been given to the health of the body over that of the soul—this is what they have communicated in denying the faithful of their right to attend Mass. Perhaps this is why accounts such as those of our heroes, Michael Nnadi and Bolanle Ataga, don’t get the recognition they deserve.
We should not, however, give into despair. It was upon the blood of the early martyrs that Christ’s message was first diffused into the world. Similarly, it will be the sacrifice of today’s unsung martyrs that will once again revive Christ’s teachings in society.
Image: Priests carry white coffins containing the bodies of fellow priests killed by Fulani herdsmen, for burial at Ayati-Ikpayongo in Gwer East district of Benue State, north-central Nigeria on May 22, 2018.