Most religious violence against Christians in recent years has been perpetrated by Boko Haram, who launched attacks on both moderate Muslims and Christians, the latter of whom were ordered to convert on pain of death. According to Human Rights Watch in 2012, the organization killed hundreds of Christians in the period 2009-2012 alone, including attacks on Christmas Eve and Christmas. Boko Haram mainly operates in northern Nigeria; despite occasional allegations by Christian groups of favoritism towards Muslims, the state itself does not, in principle, appear to discriminate. Religious freedom is enshrined in the Nigerian constitution, which specifically outlaws establishment of a state religion.
Scholarly Analysis: Persecution and Peace in Nigeria
John Cardinal Onaiyekan and other panelists
Roughly half of Nigeria’s population is Christian, while 40 percent is Muslim and 10 percent adhere to traditional religions or beliefs. Although there is significant discrimination against Christians by Muslims, it is important to bear in mind that Christians are typically either Yoruba or Igbo who live in the oil-rich south and are therefore wealthier than the highly impoverished Hausa-Fulani in the north, who are vastly Muslim.
History of the Nigerian Christian Community
Christianity was introduced to Nigeria with colonialism in the nineteenth century; the Yoruba and Igbo were more deeply Christianized than the Hausa and Fulani in the north, because the southern peoples lacked the state structures and centralized power of the northerners, forcing colonial administrators to provide their own structures, which frequently relied on mission education. So too the nation’s valuable resources were mainly located in the south; hence the presence of Europeans and thus Christian missions predominantly in that region. By contrast, British administrators did not support mission work in northern Nigeria during the colonial era and indeed attempted to squash it on multiple occasions, in order to keep the peace with the staunchly Muslim northern ethnic groups.
Current Situation of the Christian Community
As a result of the aforementioned religious demographics, religious violence in Nigeria is typically a hybrid of ethno-political and economic concerns. Even the motivations of the militant Muslim terrorist group Boko Haram could be characterized as mainly mired in economic and ethno-political disputes (related in particular to Lord Lugard’s laissez-faire colonial policy during his governorship of the Northern Nigeria Protectorate prior to Nigeria’s unification into one sovereign country) rather than religion specifically. Nonetheless, Nigeria’s Christian community has been specifically targeted by the group and faces other challenges in the country. Ineffectual governance has affected Nigerian Christians and Muslims alike:.The US State Department noted in 2013 that “Christian groups continued to assert [that] local and state authorities did not deliver adequate protection or post-attack relief to rural communities in the northeast, where Boko Haram killed villagers and burned churches throughout the year. Some Christian groups reported discrimination and a systematic lack of protection by state governments, especially in central Nigeria.” Most religious violence against Christians in recent years has been perpetrated by Boko Haram, who launched attacks on both moderate Muslims and Christians, the latter of whom were ordered to convert on pain of death. According to Human Rights Watch in 2012, the organization killed hundreds of Christians in the period 2009-2012 alone, including attacks on Christmas Eve and Christmas. Boko Haram mainly operates in northern Nigeria; despite occasional allegations by Christian groups of favoritism towards Muslims, the state itself does not, in principle, appear to discriminate. Religious freedom is enshrined in the Nigerian constitution, which specifically outlaws establishment of a state religion.
A Summary of Christian Responses to Persecution in Nigeria
Despite the common experience and a high degree of agreement on the need to come together, Christian communities in Nigeria have not always agreed on how best to respond to the attacks waged by Boko Haram. Christian leaders debate whether taking up arms to fight Boko Haram is strategically wise and morally permissible, a disagreement that often falls along denominational lines. Although most mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders believe that Christians have the right to defend themselves with force if necessary (the “just war” tradition), they are opposed to efforts to form a Christian militia that would be armed to engage Boko Haram in battle. Christian leaders influenced by a pacifist tradition, on the other hand, believe that taking up arms is not permissible for Christians under any circumstances.
Most Nigerian Christian leaders interviewed for this project, however—both Catholic and Protestant, mainline and evangelical—believe that the persecution of Christians is not God’s will and that it is their responsibility as religious leaders to get the government to more effectively provide security and protect the religious freedom of Christians. Christian leaders have thus engaged with state and federal governments, but they express deep frustration that such efforts have not been as effective as they had hoped. Several leaders were dismayed that those in government, the police, and the military do not seem interested in their experience or in their opinion about the best way to respond to the insecurity in the northeast.
Christians leaders have also responded to the persecution by reaching out to inter-governmental bodies, such as the United Nations, although they have often found such efforts frustrating. It is commonly felt that, early on in the crisis, such organizations did not take the persecution of Christians seriously and considered accounts of such attacks to be exaggerated or else believed that what was going on in Nigeria involved inter-communal conflict rather than religious persecution. This was perhaps exacerbated by a lack of unification in the Nigerian Christian community.
When it comes to what Christian leaders actually want the government to do, many are divided. Some Christian leaders have favored more governmental action and the use of force to subdue Boko Haram, while others said that the government has relied too heavily on force. Some leaders claimed that the government’s use of force has been so indiscriminate that it has actually fed into Boko Haram’s narrative that the Nigerian government, along with Christians, must be driven from the territory completely and that strictly enforced sharia is the answer to the region’s social, economic, and political problems.
Similarly, while many Christian leaders, both Protestants and Catholics, believe that inter-religious cooperation should be an essential part of any response, others are less convinced of the value of such a strategy. There are clearly theological differences between Christian denominations in terms of openness to inter-religious dialogue. Evangelical Christians, for example, tend to be more skeptical of inter-religious cooperation than Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants.
Because attacks waged by Boko Haram have been brutal and mostly unpredictable, lay Christians have largely responded by fleeing the areas under attack. Many Christians with family ties in other parts of the Nigeria, particularly the southern part of the country, have sought refuge with family members. However, many Christians who are “indigenous” to the north and lack family ties in other parts of the country have found themselves as IDPs. They have sought refuge in homes and church compounds hosted by fellow Christians and in some cases hosted by Muslims. They have also sought protection in official and makeshift IDP camps.
However, this does not mean that all Christians have decided to flee the violent persecution in the northeast. Frustrated by the government’s ineffective response, some ordinary Christians, particularly young men, have decided to fight back against Boko Haram. The problem is, Boko Haram has been much better equipped than the militias that have attempted to fight them.
This country profile draws on research by Dr. Robert Dowd and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project.