A hidden slaughter: Meeting Nigeria’s endangered Christians

A man prays at St Charles church in Kano, which Boko Haram was believed to have bombed in 2014 (AP)

‘There is just too much to care about” is a response of many people in our news-saturated world. For many Christians, in their charitable giving and prayer lives, it is hard to know what should matter most.

Although it may not get the news attention it deserves, few issues in the world today remain more appallingly submerged beneath our attention than the plight of Nigeria’s Christians. In the north-east of the country Boko Haram continues to target local communities. In Africa’s most populous country, as in Iraq and Syria under ISIS, the Christians were targeted first and then any Muslims who didn’t cooperate with the group.

It is three years now since Boko Haram declared a caliphate in the areas of Nigeria it controlled. One eyewitness recently described to me how in the years before the caliphate was proclaimed several Afghans appeared in the area of Maiduguri. Over the ensuing months more and more foreigners appeared – from Somalia, Mali and also Arabs. They began to train at night and recruit young locals.

“When the caliphate came” is how Nigeria’s internally displaced persons (IDPs) often begin their stories. When the caliphate came, the names of Christians were already on a list. Some were tipped off and most managed to get out in time. Hundreds who did not were slaughtered.

The rest of the Christian community walked in a great exodus across the mountainous borders, into Cameroon and back around into safer areas of Nigeria. More than one and a half million people from one state alone – Borno – are now displaced from their homes, and you can meet them at IDP camps across the country.

Boko Haram’s seizure of 300 Chibok schoolgirls in 2014 was one of the few times that the plight of Nigeria’s Christians has broken through to international headlines. The government continues to maintain that it is doing everything possible to solve the plight of the abducted girls. But whether through complicity, corruption, incompetence or all these, the girls remain missing.

Stories of their conversion to Islam and forced marriages filter back. But for the Christians of Nigeria the Chibok case raises daily questions. Not least because what happened in 2014 is merely a large-scale version of something that occurs all the time.

On a recent visit to Jos I met a Christian charity – the Stefanos Foundation – which is fighting for the return of a 14-year-old girl who was recently abducted from her home in the very north of the country in Katsina. Habiba was taken from her family’s house while they were out.

They discovered that she had been abducted, forcibly converted and married off to a local Emir more than 50 years older than her. Local law has been trumped by Islamic law, and the rights of the girl’s parents and family – not to mention the girl herself – count for nothing. No government that cares about the Chibok girls could countenance this. But it does.

Meanwhile, in what is known as the Middle Belt of the country, in places such as Plateau State and Kaduna State, another form of religious and ethnic cleansing is happening against local Christians. In January, I saw for myself the desolation of villages, as well as the untellable amount of physical and psychological suffering these massacres are causing.

In village after village across this fertile region the same story is replayed. Herdsmen of the Fulani tribe who follow the Muslim faith have for more than a decade been picking off these isolated villages one by one. They attack at day or night, coming through the bushes with Kalashnikovs and machetes, and hacking to death the unarmed Christian villagers. They often rape the women and kill the children before either razing the village, including the church, or settling on the land themselves.

As I saw for myself, local police and army placements, put there to guard and protect the citizens, ignore such atrocities. Locals point to places where families and neighbours have recently been hacked down and their villages razed. Often there is an army position, watching benignly over the whole scene.

After such massacres, villagers sometimes confront the security forces, demanding to know why they did not act. Some of these soldiers – who include Christians – say that they have no orders to act. Indeed, the security forces, like the national government in Abuja, appear to take cattle-rustling more seriously than they do the massacres and ethnic cleansing of their country’s Christians.

Since returning from visiting these embattled Christian communities of the northern and central belts of Nigeria, I have been wondering why their situation is of so little interest to the wider world, including the wider Christian world. Different reasons abound in different places.

For the Foreign Office in London, as in the United Nations and other international bodies, there is a mistaken belief that the killings in the Middle Belt are tit-for-tat land disputes. Though there certainly have been acts of retaliation from Christians, and the possibility of a bigger response in the future remains possible, any analysis on the ground makes it clear that the “six of one, half a dozen of the other” excuse is merely that: an excuse not to act.

Some in the international community also wonder why, if the plight of the country’s northern Christians is so bad, the government in Abuja or the richer citizens of Lagos in the south do not make more of it. The truth is that the plight of Christians in the mainly Muslim north is a world away for the citizens of the mainly Christian south in a vast country divided along many lines.

Meanwhile, the national government – run by a Fulani president – is mired in corruption and a complicity (if not connivance) in sectarian and intra-religious bloodshed, with a not-so-hidden agenda to make sure the fertile northern half of the country becomes a Christian-free area.

But why the silence of Christians in the rest of the world? One reason, again, is the fearfulness of some Christian leaders in Nigeria, although this is diminishing. It is rare to meet a religious leader in the north who has not themselves been touched by the bloodshed. The Anglican Bishop of Jos has had repeated attempts on his life, his home burned to the ground during Muslim riots, and his wife raped and beaten.

This violence goes in cycles. But recently things have once again become bad enough for Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, to call on the government to be “more proactive” in protecting the country’s Christians.

Yet it is the comparative silence of the churches internationally which often leads other governments and aid agencies to show indifference in the face of such atrocities. If the Christian churches won’t speak up for their own flock, why should anyone else speak up for them? In this, the western and northern hemisphere churches bear a great deal of blame.

There is no doubt that the Christians of Nigeria – with their more fervent and literalist faith than is common in the West today – are to some degree an embarrassment to their international brethren. They do not always hold the “correct” view on interfaith issues, sexual ethics or a range of other doctrines.

But Nigeria may yet be a testing ground for the wider world. The Christians who fled Maiduguri told me that in generations past their families got on well with Muslims. It is the intolerant strains of the religion that have been imported in recent years that have reopened the conflict.

And of course as London, Paris, Moscow and an ever-increasing number of cities around the world are finding out, this does not only affect Nigeria. Perhaps it just affects Nigeria first, and, as well as being a reminder of our past, the Christians of Nigeria are also a portent of our possible future.

Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (Bloomsbury) is published on May 4

This article first appeared in the March 31 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here