Most of us in the West heard about the 276 schoolgirls from northeastern Nigeria who were kidnapped in 2014 by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. Yet that was only the most infamous instance of Christian persecution in Nigeria, which can be traced back to the 19th-century Sokoto caliphate. Sharia law was officially established in the region in 1999, and Islamist violence has surged since Muhammadu Buhari was elected president of Nigeria in 2015. As the late Bishop Joseph Bagobiri of Kafanchan said, “the persecution of Christians in Nigeria is not given anything like the same level of international attention as persecuted Christians in the Middle East.”
A more recent example of anti-Christian violence, which went totally unreported by the Western mainstream media, was the killing of Fr. Paul Offu in southern Nigeria at the hands of Islamic Fulani herdsmen on August 1. Buhari has yet to condemn the Fulani militants as terrorists, perhaps because he belongs to the same tribe. This led former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo to write an open letter to Buhari, warning him of the risk of a “Rwandan-style genocide” of Christians in Nigeria if the government does not take immediate measures to stop the violence. One can surmise that such violence is all part of a well-organized operation to exterminate Christians altogether.
In July and August of this year, I had the opportunity to visit Christians persecuted by Muslim fundamentalists—specifically Boko Haram—in the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria. As I traveled through the outskirts of the city, I spent some time with a woman whose husband, Yohanna, had been kidnapped by Boko Haram just two days prior. She was very much comforted by her fellow parishioners at St. Augustine’s church, who were praying and hoping against hope that Yohanna would be released. Tragically, just hours after our meeting, he was found dead.
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Like Fr. Offu’s assassination, Yohanna’s murder is just one of many such horrific stories that go unreported. While the U.S.-led Western powers hold that they can drive out Islamic terrorism by force, they fail to get at the root of the problem: sharia law.
Like ISIS terrorists, the Almajiri boys are indoctrinated in Islamic ideology at an early age. Derived from the Arabic word meaning “to flee one’s country” or “to emigrate,” the Almajiri system is supposed to train boys to be “knowledge” seekers, as commanded by Allah in the Quran:
And whoever emigrates for the cause of Allah will find on the earth many [alternative] locations and abundance. And whoever leaves his home as an emigrant to Allah and His Messenger and then death overtakes him—his reward has already become incumbent upon Allah.
For many families, the Almajiri system is an attractive alternative to sending their children to a state school, which costs money. Most religious schools in Nigeria provide free tuition, but Almajiri pupils have to take care of their own daily needs, which is why many of them go begging when they’re not in class.
According to the Nigerian government’s Council for the Welfare of the Destitute report in 2017, approximately 7 million Almajiri roam the streets of northern Nigeria every day. Many succumb to street violence, child trafficking, disease, or hunger. Those who survive remain unskilled and ultimately undertake menial jobs with very limited prospects. Critics, both from Nigeria and abroad, say the young Almajiri pupils—and I encountered many of them—are ideal recruits for extremists: poor, desperate, and in search of religious guidance.
Of course, some of the victims of Boko Haram and the Fulani nomads have been Muslims. Yet, after lives and property have been destroyed and reconstruction has begun, government funds are used to rehabilitate Muslim communities and compensate Muslim families. Meanwhile, Christians are left out in the cold—a clear instance of religious discrimination.
Christians are also routinely denied land to build churches. The last time a Certificate of Occupancy was issued for a church building within the Diocese of Maiduguri was in 1979. Christian students are denied Christian religious curricula in the primary and secondary levels, and instead are forced to study Islam. They’re denied jobs and promotions in government parastatals. And, lest they try to secure these rights through democratic means, Christians are routinely denied the right to seek public office.
As a priest from Maiduguri named Fr. John Bakeni told me, the persecution of Christians is prevalent.
“About four years ago, they came to us,” he said, speaking of Christian refugees seeking sanctuary. “There was no place for them to stay. Nobody wanted to take them in, not even the housing communities. The diocese has been solely responsible for their welfare and their upkeep. Like other displacement centers, they have received little or no attention from the government—not even NGOs of Christian roots and origin. People don’t want us to say this in public, but that is the fact.”
Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images