A Release International fact-finding team recently returned from Nigeria, where reports suggest more Christians are being killed for their faith than in the rest of the world put together. Yet what we discovered is not a church in despair but one that is overcoming through love and forgiveness, even towards those who have ‘betrayed’ it, writes Andrew Boyd
It was just before Christmas in Mallagum village, Kaduna state. But the festive spirit had been dampened by rumours that Fulani militants were about to stage an attack. Heavily armed Fulani militia had already attacked two other villages nearby, killing and injuring the mainly Christian residents and burning their homes. The people of Mallagum did not know whether to stay put or to run for their lives. But many of them took reassurance when soldiers turned up in their military vehicles, as Esther Nathan recalls: ‘Every day they were around, going up and down in our village, and the people said, “They’re going to save us.” We were very happy.’
These soldiers said they were hungry, so the villagers gave them food. One was sick and the villagers helped him. The villagers had been planning to take the children to a nearby hospital just in case the Fulani came. But the soldiers said, ‘No, don’t go anywhere. Just relax. Nothing will happen to you. We are here to protect you.’ Esther was relieved. Perhaps now they could settle down to prepare for Christmas.
But at 10am on Sunday, December 18, the villagers realised they had been betrayed. The Fulani attacked. And far from protecting them, the men wearing the uniforms of soldiers joined in the shooting. ‘They were together,’ said Esther. ‘They were mixing.’ More men arrived dressed in military fatigues, but far from rescuing the villagers, they joined in with the Fulani. ‘They burned our houses – everything. They were working together.’
According to Esther, the soldiers and Fulani together killed 29 people in her village. Their victims included Esther’s father- and mother-in-law and their adopted 11-yr-old son, Nehemiah Sunday. ‘They shot my father-in-law, Toma, and then they cut him with a knife – his leg and hands.’ Toma was 80 and too old to run. His wife, Jummai, was 60. Esther believes Toma was already dead when his killers set about his body. She cannot imagine why anyone would do such a thing. However, others have described similar attacks, where Fulani militants have mutilated the bodies of those they have killed as a grim warning to the Christian villagers to run for their lives and never return.
Even so, many of the villagers chose to cling to their homes. So the Fulani returned soon after to drive home their brutal message. Attack victim Lukuchi David told Arise News: ‘The gunshots were everywhere. You didn’t know where to run. Everybody ran,’ said Esther. ‘And they burned our houses again.’
‘They killed so many people, and the Government didn’t take any action,’ said Joel Victor, another villager. Finally, more soldiers arrived, and this time it was to protect the villagers. The Fulani headed out, leaving blackened walls, twisted roofs, and the bodies of the dead among the ashes. By then, according to press reports, this Fulani raid had killed 39 people in several villages in southern Kaduna. The villagers buried their dead in a mass grave three days before Christmas, to the sound of wailing. As Channels TV reported: ‘The arrival of the truck carrying the victims’ caskets triggered an outpouring of emotions as relatives and friends wept helplessly.’
‘The military, the police, the government have all failed us’
As the coffins were unloaded and placed in a long line, mourners prostrated themselves over the caskets containing their loved ones, grieving their lost and crying out for justice. ‘Hundreds who gathered for the funeral called on the Government and security agencies to stop the attacks before they are completely wiped out,’ reported Channels TV. The Catholic Bishop of Kanfanchan Diocese, Kaduna, told another Nigerian TV channel, Arise News: ‘The military have failed us, the police have failed us, the Government have failed us.’ The bishop’s own house was destroyed in the attack.
The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) described the raid on unsuspecting villagers as ‘barbaric’ and a strategy to drive them off their lands. ‘The Federal Government and security agencies must not let the killers escape,’ said CAN state chairman Joseph Hayab. ‘Those who commit this evil must be arrested and brought to face justice.’ And a statement by the South Kaduna Peoples’ Union described the attacks as ‘crimes against humanity’. It condemned the security forces for failing to protect the villagers: ‘Let it be put on the record that in the hundreds of attacks that have left many parts of southern Kaduna in ruins and killed thousands since 2014, we have not seen anyone arrested and brought to book.’
But from what Esther witnessed, the problem runs far deeper. In her view, it is not simply that security forces failed to protect the villagers. Nor that they turned a blind eye to the slaughter. It is Esther’s conviction that soldiers actually joined in the attack, having reassured the villagers it was safe to remain. Others from different villages, in different states, which were attacked on different occasions, have made similar allegations. Release International will report their witness accounts in the weeks and months to come. In Mallagum village, what Esther saw with her own eyes convinced her that these men were soldiers. She and the other villagers were persuaded by their assurances that they would protect them.
‘They were wearing green uniforms,’ she says. And they looked like regular soldiers carrying regular weapons. And while the Fulani attackers were speaking their own language, Esther says these apparent soldiers spoke English. And they arrived in armoured cars. This description alone cannot be considered proof of military collusion. But such allegations must be investigated. If these uniformed men were Fulani militants in disguise, where did they get their military equipment? And if they were regular soldiers, how is it possible that Nigerian troops could be permitted to support an attack against defenceless villagers?
Esther’s husband lost his parents, and together they lost their home. They had to leave what remains of their village and have now joined the estimated three million Nigerians displaced by the violence, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Release International’s partners give warning that unless urgent and decisive action is taken to protect ordinary Nigerians many more could be forced to flee. They fear this could provoke a humanitarian crisis that would impact not only the region, but the rest of the world. Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa, and according to the UN is projected to overtake the US by around 2050 – trailing only China and India.
It is hard to overestimate Nigeria’s importance in Africa, and the scale of the violence unfolding in that country. Successive reports state that more Christians are killed for their faith each year in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. And in recent years, more Christians are killed in Nigeria than in the rest of the world put together. That violence, instigated by Islamist terror groups, Fulani militants and kidnap gangs is spreading. Unless an end is put to the bloodshed, there will be a wholesale exodus of Nigerian Christians, believes Release International partner, the Anglican Archbishop of Jos, the Most Reverend Dr Benjamin Kwashi. He said: ‘Christians are going to leave this country. They’re going to leave in droves. Christians are going to run to anywhere in the world, but Nigeria. They will not wait for the persecution that will happen.’ And that means this is not just Nigeria’s problem, but the world’s.
Esther’s faith, and the faith of many displaced Christians interviewed recently by Release International is humbling and remarkable. We spoke to Esther at a trauma- healing workshop in Plateau State, organised by one of our Nigerian partners. The workshop was held close to another village which had been attacked by the Fulani. There, too, Fulani militants had swept in and set fire to everything they could, while the villagers ran for their lives. And this village was right next to a large military barracks. Not a single soldier came out to help them.
But Esther, and every Christian we spoke to – without exception – had this simple but profound message: ‘We forgive them’. Esther is a member of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), one of the largest Christian denominations in Nigeria, which faithfully continues to plant churches even in these troubled parts of the country. As fast as the Fulani militants burn their churches down, they build another. So, if Esther could say anything to those who destroyed their homes and slaughtered her father- and mother-in-law, what would it be?
‘I would say, I forgive them. I would ask them to repent,’ she said. ‘Our Bible does not tell us to kill someone like this. It is a sin. The only thing is to forgive them.’
Esther learned this message of grace from her father-in-law, Toma, who was murdered by the Fulani. She was very close to Toma. ‘He used to tell me that if anyone does something bad to you, find a way to forgive that person. Once you have that heart of forgiveness, you will live. ‘Even if my father- and mother-in-law were alive today, they would say that they forgive these Fulani men, because they didn’t know what they were doing.’
Throughout this harrowing time Esther has found encouragement from one scripture in particular, Psalm 101. ‘I will sing of your love and justice; to you, Lord, I will sing praise. I will be careful to lead a blameless life – when will you come to me?’ This Psalm has a particular message for Esther: ‘That we should stand by our faith, no matter the situation. That we should give thanks to God no matter the situation. No matter what has happened to us, we still appreciate the word of God over our lives.’ Even as the homeless gathered at the mission station with its painted halls and neatly trimmed hedges, the Fulani militants were continuing their attacks in Kaduna. ‘They came again only the day before yesterday,’ said Esther.
‘These Fulani, they are still in our villages. And now they say they are in government, so no one will stop them. They say they are going to deal with us.’
Esther asks for prayer from Release International supporters: ‘We pray for peace for our country, especially Kaduna state. Without peace, we cannot do anything. But once you have peace, you can do what you want.’
And Esther, who is 35, asked specifically for prayer for herself. ‘I have this challenge. I am childless. For the last three years I have had fibroids. There is no solution. So I need God’s intervention. Please pray for me for healing.’
Major Campaign – ‘Out of these Ashes’
The worsening persecution of Christians in Nigeria is the major focus of Release International this spring.
Out of these Ashes is our new campaign, which aims to raise awareness and prayer for our suffering brothers and sisters in Africa’s most populous nation.
Inspired by words from Archbishop Ben Kwashi, we are launching a campaign called Out of these Ashes, informing UK Christians of the scale and severity of the violence against our brothers and sisters in Nigeria.
We want to encourage people to pray for all those suffering for Christ in this significant country that has been described as the cornerstone of the continent of Africa. The campaign will be launched with a special online event on April 4. If you would like to register and be part of that event, details are available here.
The campaign will conclude with a speaker tour around the UK, finishing with a special Day of the Christian Martyr event on June 29.
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