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.

Scholarly Analysis: Persecution and Peace in Nigeria

John Cardinal Onaiyekan and other panelists

Christian Demographics

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.


To whom do we turn?

How Christians Respond to Religious Persecution:
Lessons from Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan

Robert Dowd, Ph.D. (University of Notre Dame)

Christians who are persecuted, that is attacked or discriminated against because of their religious identity, are faced with a choice. They may choose to endure, flee, fight, appeal to government, or reach out to those who share religious identity with their persecutors. They may also choose some combination of these responses. 

This study seeks to understand why Christians in three sub-Saharan African countries, Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan, have chosen to respond to religious persecution in the ways they have and to identify the effects of such choices on the prospects for greater religious freedom in their countries.

In the study, we clearly differentiate the three countries in terms of the types of religious persecution that exist. In Kenya and Nigeria the persecution that Christians have experienced is societal persecution. In other words, the state is not the perpetrator. The perpetrators are societal movements, namely Al-Shabaab in Kenya and Boko Haram in Nigeria. In Sudan, the persecution is state sponsored.  

The persecution of Christians in Kenya by Al-Shabaab and in Nigeria by Boko Haram has been extremely violent and the state in both countries has struggled to protect Christians’ lives let alone their freedom to worship. While Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram have also attacked Muslims they consider insufficiently faithful, they have often killed Christians immediately upon learning of their religious identity. This has been especially true of male Christians. While the persecution of Christians in Sudan has been less violent in nature, there has been systematic discrimination in ways that clearly make Christians second or third class citizens at best.

In Kenya and Nigeria, most ordinary Christians (i.e., Roman Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals) have responded to Al Shabaab and Boko Haram attacks by fleeing areas where such attacks have been most frequent. In both Kenya and Nigeria, Christians who have fled violent attacks make up a growing percentage of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Many of them, with nowhere else to turn, find themselves in IDP camps. It is estimated there are over 50,000 IDPs in Nigeria because of the Boko Haram insurgency and, as of August 2015, over 70 percent of these IDPs were Christians.

Although some groups of Christians in northeastern Nigeria have chosen to take up arms to defend themselves against Boko Haram, Christians in the area have generally decided not to fight back.

There appears to be a split among Nigeria’s Christian leaders as to the best way to respond to attacks on Christians, with mainline Christian leaders, particularly Roman Catholic leaders, choosing to reach our to Muslim religious leaders and government to develop strategies to weaken Boko Haram, and Evangelical Christian choosing to demand government action and to call for Christians to defend themselves.

In Sudan, discrimination and harassment of Christians intensified after the creation of South Sudan in 2011. Many Christians have simply decided to worship ‘underground,’ seeking to avoid drawing the attention of the state. Many Christians seek ways to leave Sudan, but lack the financial resources to do so. Some have chosen to immigrate to predominantly Christian South Sudan, only to find a civil war that makes life in some parts of that country at least as challenging as life in Sudan.

Christian leaders in Sudan have chosen to appeal to Christians beyond Sudan in a way that does not backfire and end up shrinking the little religious freedom that they happen to enjoy. Christians have responded by enduring the discrimination and worshipping “underground.”  Christian leaders have sought conversations with the government in an attempt gain greater freedom of worship. This has met with some limited successes and appears to have prevented increased persecution.

Preliminary evidence suggests that Christian leaders’ efforts to reach out to Muslim religious leaders have been effective in providing Christians in certain areas of Nigeria and Kenya with greater security. In Nigeria in particular, there are numerous examples of Muslims hiding and defending Christians from Boko Haram militants. These inter-faith efforts to promote religious freedom may also be sowing the seeds of mutual respect and greater religious freedom for Christians and Muslims in the area.