Persecuted Church: Nigeria

Every month our ministry chooses a different country where Christians are being persecuted and we commit to pray for them. The country we are praying for in March is Nigeria. Much of the information regarding persecution in Nigeria that I’ve included here comes from Open Doors USA’s World Watch Research Nigeria: Country Dossier (WWR).

WWR estimates that during last year’s reporting period (November 1, 2018 – October 31, 2019), there were 1,350 Christians who were killed. During that same period, they estimate at least 150 churches and 2,500 Christian-owned shops and businesses were attacked. They stress that due to a lack of solid data these should be understood as bare minimum figures. The seriousness of the situation is widely recognized, with Nigeria ranking 3rd in the world among countries most impacted by terrorism on the 2019 Global Terrorism Index, and Christians are often the victims of these attacks.

Country Background

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and 7th most populous in the world. It is home to over 250 ethnic groups, the three most populous of which are the Hausa (30%), Yoruba (15.5%) and Igbo (15.2%). There is a roughly equal amount of Muslims and Christians in the country, and a small amount of others who practice indigenous religions or are non-religious. The World Christian Database estimates that Christians make up about 46.7% of the population, Muslims 46.1%, and ethnoreligionists 6.9%, in addition to other small groups (the most populous of which identifies as agnostic at .3%).

A brief history of Nigeria can help us understand the current situation. A series of kingdoms were established in the north starting from around AD 100. Islam, which the northern kingdoms were exposed to via trade, was introduced into the region in the 11th century and became widely practiced in these empires. The kingdoms of what is now southern Nigeria remained mostly dominated by indigenous religions during this period. The Portuguese arrived during the 15th century, and they were in turn superseded by the British in the 19th century, although neither took direct control of the government at this time. These European nations introduced Christianity into the region, but it wouldn’t really get a foothold until after the abolition of the slave trade in the 1830s. Missions were most successful in the south. A new Muslim empire known as the Sokoto Caliphate was established in 1812 in the north. The Sokoto Caliphate began to expand into the south, and eventually the southern leaders would have to cede power to the British to repel these attacks. By the early 1900s Britain had unseated the Sokoto Caliphate and turned Nigeria into a colony. Nigeria formally gained full independence from British rule in 1960 after gradual steps had been taken in this direction over the previous decades. For many years after independence, the government was unstable, marked by a series of coups and changes in government structure until 1999 when the current constitution was adopted.

With the new constitution, Nigeria is now a democracy. Presidents are elected for 4-year terms, and the president chooses their Vice President and cabinet. The country is made up of 36 states plus one Federal Capital Territory. Each state exercises a certain level of independence as long as they stay within the bounds of the national constitution. States have federal representation in the national legislature, with the citizens of each state electing 10 individuals to represent them in the House of Representatives and 3 individuals to represent them in the Senate. All citizens have the right to vote. The constitution grants that there shall be no state religion, and citizens are granted the right to practice their religion however they like.

Although the situation is more stable than before 1999, there are many problems with the government. There is a lot of corruption, and according to Reporters Without Borders, it is dangerous to report on it: “Journalists are often threatened, subjected to physical violence or denied access to information by government officials, police and sometimes the public itself.”

As would be expected based on the history of the nation, the northern states are primarily Muslim and the southern states are primarily Christian, although the exact ratio varies from state to state. It is not a complete split, however, and Christians make up about 15% of the northern states, 50% of the middle belt states, and 71% of the southern states.

With this background, we can now look at some of the ways that Christians are experiencing persecution.

Sharia States

Shortly after the adoption of the current constitution, several of the northern states began to adopt Sharia law. By 2002, 12 states had implemented Sharia in one form or another, and these 12 remain the only ones so far to implement the system: Zamfara, Sokoto, Kebbi, Niger, Kano, Katsina, Kaduna, Jigawa, Yobe, Bauchi, Borno and Gombe. Different states have implemented Sharia differently. For example, in Kaduna, where approximately half of the population is Christian, Sharia is not as strict as in some other states. Many have raised concerns that the state-level implementation of Sharia in any form is a violation of the Nigerian constitution which grants that no state shall adopt an official religion. Some officials in the Sharia courts have legitimized these fears by asserting that their duty to Islamic law is higher than their duty to any secular law, whether it be the Nigerian constitution or international human rights laws.

Because the Nigerian constitution grants freedom of religion, the Sharia courts in theory have no power over non-Muslims. While Muslims in the Sharia states are obligated to be under the authority of the Sharia criminal justice system, Christians and other non-Muslims are not supposed to be legally obliged to follow Islamic restrictions, and when they must interact with the justice system they are free to choose whether they want to use the secular federal court system (which they generally do choose) or the Sharia system (happens rarely).

Both the Sharia courts and the federal courts are plagued with human rights violations. A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) focuses on some of the human rights violations that have happened in the Sharia courts, such as lack of legal representation, coerced confessions, and cruel punishments (such as amputation and stoning).

They note that certain punishments are directly commanded by the Quran and are thus part of standard Sharia, although different interpretations exist and thus Sharia may be implemented differently in different places. “For example in Nigeria, apostasy is not included as an offense in the Shari’a penal codes, presumably in recognition of the diversity of faiths in the country, even in the north, and the right to freedom of religion.”

Despite the fact that Nigerian Sharia is not supposed to apply to Muslims and certain concessions have been made to conform to the Nigerian constitution, Islamic society in the north has impacted Christians outside of the courts. For example, laws have been passed barring mixed-gender public transport, which applies to Christians and Muslims alike.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) conducted research on how exactly Sharia and Muslim dominance have impacted Christians in the northern states, and they found that the system was rife with religious discrimination. Christians and other non-Muslims are often treated like second-class citizens.

Non-Muslims who would try to get a government job face extraordinary difficulty. “Several people complained of having been regularly by-passed for promotion on diverse occasions as senior posts were given to less qualified Muslim candidates” (CSW). In the state of Katsina, Christians are only allowed to be part of the legislative assembly in 2 of the 34 Local Government Areas. HRW recounts a case in 2002 where 11 Christian nurses were fired from a federal hospital after they refused to comply with mandatory Muslim dress codes implemented by the hospital director. When nurse organizations, Christian organizations, and non-governmental organizations requested that they be reinstated and not forced to comply with the dress codes, the hospital director refused and was subsequently fired; however, the nurses were not reinstated until two years later.

CSW has received reports of Christians being denied access to education. In 2004, Katsina state removed material about Christian religion from school curriculum, but continued teaching about Islam. In Kano state, in order to have access to either public or private education one must adhere to Muslim dress codes. Education may also be disrupted on a non-institutional level. Charges of blasphemy have sometimes been raised against Christian teachers and students, resulting in mob violence. A particularly egregious example took place in 2007 when teacher Christiana Oluwatoyin Oluwasesin was beaten and killed by a mob of students after being falsely accused of tearing a Quran.

Several instances are recounted where government assistance is provided to Muslims but denied to Christians. For example, in Katsina the state government offsets the cost of fertilizer for Muslim farmers but fails to provide the same service to Christian farmers. In the same state, the Ministry of Religious Affairs was accused, among other things, of providing funding for Muslims to make pilgrimage while denying the same funding for Christian pilgrimage.

Christians are often obstructed from obtaining property to build new churches, and existing churches may be arbitrarily destroyed. “Churches are regularly demolished by state governments, often on spurious grounds, and usually with little or no compensation” (CSW). For example, a church may be destroyed because the state government wants to build a road nearby or use the grounds to build a hospital, but they fail to provide adequate notice or compensation. In other cases, officials order destruction of churches after asserting that the buildings are not up to code or adequately certified, despite evidence to the contrary.

As noted above, Sharia in Nigeria does not allow execution or imprisonment of apostates (converts) from Islam. HRW notes, “In April 2002, two Muslims were brought before a Shari’a court in Mada, Zamfara State, for converting to Christianity. The judge reportedly said that according to Islam, they should be sentenced to death, but threw the case out as there was no legal basis for a conviction in the Shari’a legislation in force. Other cases where Muslims have converted to Christianity have not been pursued through the courts at all.” However, individuals who convert may experience violence or social alienation from their family or community. This includes the possibility of being killed extrajudicially. In addition, due to corruption in the judicial system CSW recounts several cases where Christians were imprisoned on sham charges after conversion.

In addition to attacks on new converts, there have also been periodic outbreaks of mob violence that have resulted in many Christians being killed. The perpetrators of these violent attacks often go completely unpunished, and the surviving victims are left uncompensated for their loss of life/property. This encourages more violence, since the aggressors know they can get away with it. Christians in certain areas live in fear that such an attack may occur with the slightest provocation, whether real or imagined. Even in communities where Muslims and Christians live in relative harmony, there have been cases where outside agitators come in and stir up trouble.

One example of such violence was in 2000 in Kaduna state. Christians organized a protest against the recent implementation of Sharia. It is unclear exactly how the violence started, but the protesters and Muslims came into a violent conflict. The official report from the Nigerian government states that 1,295 people died, but other organizations have stated that as many as 5,000 people may have died as a result of the ensuing violence.

Another bout of violence occurred two years later in Kaduna. Nigeria was supposed to be hosting the Miss World competition, which many Muslims were opposed to. An article in a Nigerian newspaper about the event making light of the Muslim outrage resulted in initially peaceful protests which turned into intense violence. Groups of Muslim youths first attacked the newspaper office. Then they turned on the Christians in Kaduna, killing them and burning down their homes and churches. This led to retaliations by some groups of Christians, and these killings in turn led to further reprisals from Muslims, and so on. The military eventually came in and began slaughtering people almost indiscriminately: Muslims and Christians alike, both those who were part of the riots and those who weren’t. In the end, the government reports that around 250 people were killed and 109 churches, 39 mosques, and a large number of other buildings were destroyed.

There have been cases where children have been abducted after their parents converted to Christianity. “Child abduction is occurring increasingly in such Shari’ah states as Katsina and Bauchi. According to sources in Bauchi, the State Shari’ah Commission is deeply implicated in these abductions. The Commission was involved at some level in a case that was brought to CSW’s attention during 2005” (CSW). The abductions are an attempt to coerce the children into becoming Muslims, and in some cases the children are forced into marriages with Muslims toward this end.

Hisbahs frequently harass Christians and Muslims alike. “Hisbah” is a doctrine in Islam where certain men in a community are appointed to enforce Muslim laws in public places. In some cases, they have taken the law into their own hands rather than notifying the necessary authorities, carrying out beatings and other punishments. HRW reports one case: “On December 31, 2000, a group of youths broke into the house of a Christian man, Livinus Obi, who had bought alcohol to celebrate the New Year. Even though Christians are not bound by Shari’a [which forbids the consumption of alcohol], the youths searched Livinus Obi’s house, and after finding some alcohol, pinned him to the ground and beat him. The youths were arrested and taken before the Shari’a court. However, Livinus Obi later dropped the case, reportedly because he felt he did not have enough support from his own community to see it through.”


Although the Nigerian government is nominally secular, there are several religious concerns. WWR notes that Christians often have trouble getting government jobs despite being adequately qualified: “The Federal government has removed Christians from various positions or forced their resignation and replaced them with Muslim officials. . . . Nepotism based on ethnic, religious, or party affiliation is rife; over 85% of security sector leaders are Muslims from the core north in violation of the Federal Character principle of the amended 1999 Constitution. Due to ethnic and party fragmentation and personal interests, Christians have been unable or unwilling to muster a common front to combat systemic corruption.”

The current president is Muhammad Buhari, who belongs to the predominantly Muslim Hausa ethnic group. Hausa and Fulani groups have historically been dominant, holding military and leadership positions. The federal government has failed to adequately respond to attacks on Christians, leading some to wonder whether they are merely incompetent or are in fact complicit. Either way, their inaction has created an environment of impunity.

There are concerns that Nigeria will become increasingly Islamized and that persecution will continue to get worse for Christians. “Islamization in Nigeria has increasingly become coercive under the presidency of Muhammadu Buhari. It seems that President Buhari uses his position in power to appoint Muslims to key positions in the country, and to allow (if not encourage) a culture of impunity that makes it possible for persecution against Christians to go largely unnoticed (‘persecution eclipse’)” (WWR).

Recent comments by Nigeria’s Chief Justice are particularly concerning. At the Annual Judges Conference in December 2019, he is reported to have made the comment that he would like to see the national constitution amended so as to officially implement Sharia: “As we all know, there are sections of the constitution that allow the implementation of Shari’a personal law and apart from that, we cannot do more. However, we have the numbers to amend the constitution to suit our own position as Muslims”.

Boko Haram

Boko Haram was founded in 2002, and since then they have carried out many attacks, killing tens of thousands of people and displacing millions more. The group was founded by Mohammed Yusuf in the Nigerian state of Borno, which is still currently their main area of operation, although they do carry out attacks in other states. Recently, they have also expanded into neighboring countries like Cameroon and Burkina Faso.

The name “Boko Haram” is the group’s title in the Hausa language, and it can be roughly interpreted as “Westernization is sacrilege.” They also have an Arabic name which is translated, “People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad.” As part of their religiously motivated campaign to eradicate Western influences, they have specifically targeted Christians and government buildings such as police stations, military barracks, and schools. In 2011, a Boko Haram member detonated a suicide bomb at the UN headquarters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. They drew international attention when they kidnapped almost 300 girls from a school in 2014.

In 2015, the group allied themselves with ISIS and took on the name Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). There was a disagreement about leadership and tactics, and in 2016 the group split: one faction retained the name ISWAP and the other, led by Abubakr Shekau, reverted to the original Arabic title. It is believed that one of the reasons for this split is that Shekau is eager to attack Muslims who do not share his own radical beliefs. According to Shekau, any Muslims who participate in democracy, Western education, or government institutions are idolaters and should thus be targeted with violence just like Christians, Jews, and Western institutions. Both ISWAP and Shekau’s faction may be popularly referred to as Boko Haram.

The Nigerian military has been fighting Boko Haram since its inception. The number of attacks peaked in 2014, and thanks in part to extra military aid from other countries the death toll and the amount of area Boko Haram occupies have begun to decrease. President Buhari has gone so far as to claim in a 2019 statement, “The position of the Nigerian government is that the Boko Haram terrorism has been degraded and defeated. The real Boko Haram we know is defeated.” In some ways this is true. Boko Haram attacks have decreased. According to the Global Terrorism Index: “Terrorism-related deaths committed by Boko Haram dropped 42 percent in 2018 compared to the previous year, an 89 percent decline from their peak in 2014. Furthermore, the fatality rate of Boko Haram attacks has fallen from 15 deaths per attack to four in the past five years.”

On the other hand, the group continues to carry out violent attacks and abductions on a daily basis and were responsible for over 550 deaths in 2018. The military who has been fighting them is reportedly demoralized and fatigued. When the soldiers flee, they often leave behind important technology and weapons, such as drones, only for them to be picked up by Boko Haram. Many people believe that the corruption latent in the government is impacting the war effort, with officials skimming from important military funds.

Christians in particular have suffered from the violence of Boko Haram, and thousands have been killed. Several recent examples can be listed from 2020 alone.

On January 2 of this year, the chair of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Adamawa state was abducted by Boko Haram and executed. This event, which is the latest of many violent losses, caused the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) to call for a period of fasting and prayer in early February. The World Council of Churches and Lutheran World Federation responded by penning an open letter to President Buhari, urging him to take the relevant actions to protect his citizens, especially since Christians are the ones who are being specifically targeted in many of these attacks.

On January 8, four students of a Catholic seminary were abducted. Three of them would be released, but one of them, Michael Nnadi, was executed.

On February 25, the village of Garkida in Adamawa state was attacked by members of Boko Haram. Three churches were destroyed (other reports say five) in addition to the police station, a local health center, several houses, and a market. The staff liaison for the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (one of the churches that was burned down belonged to this denomination) is quoted, that they mainly targeted Christian and government properties.

Voice of the Martyrs notes the scope of the tragedy: “Nearly all Christians in northeastern Nigeria have lost family members in attacks by Boko Haram or Islamic Fulani militants”.

In a recent press conference, the Nigerian Minister of Information acknowledged that recently Boko Haram has increased attacks on Christians. He argued that Boko Haram has been weakened and cannot sustain a war against the Nigerian military, and thus has amped up its attacks on vulnerable Christians in an attempt to revive the embers of religious discord: “They have started targeting Christians and Christian villages for a specific reason, which is to trigger a religious war and throw the nation into chaos. . . . Lest I am misunderstood, let me repeat: the insurgents, who delude themselves as Muslims whereas they are nothing more than blood-thirsty, rapacious killers who subscribe to no religion, have recently started targeting Christians with a view to sowing the seed of confusion between the two great religions. This did not in any way signify that they have stopped attacking Muslims. But they seem to now have a deliberate policy of attacking Christians.” He urged Christians and Muslims to not allow these attacks to cause further division and violence, and reiterated that the military continues to work tirelessly to eradicate the terrorist group.

Farmer-Herder Conflicts?

The violence done by Boko Haram has grabbed a lot of media attention, but in recent years their actions have been overshadowed by the conflict taking place in the Middle Belt region. The Middle Belt states in which this conflict is happening are Benue, Plateau, Bauchi, Kaduna, Nasarawa, Taraba and Adamawa. These states form a boundary between the predominantly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south.

In some popular presentations, this conflict has been flattened to a single issue: due to the encroachment of the desert and other environmental factors, herders have less land on which to graze their herds. As a result, they are brought into conflict with farmers over land use. In one sense, this analysis is correct. Desertification is a recognized problem in the region, and it has exacerbated tensions between herders and farmers; but there are additional factors as is argued in a 2015 report by Nigeria Conflict Security Analysis Network (NCSAN) funded by WWR.

The farmers are mostly Christians and belong to the Tiv ethnic group, while the herders are mostly Muslims and belong to the Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups. In Benue state, NCSAN estimates 88% of the casualties have been Christian. In Taraba state, they estimate that 70% of the casualties were Christian. Due to the religious makeup of the region, “Attacks on these indigenous [farming] communities are automatically an attack against Christian communities” (NCSAN). Further, there is reason to believe that Christians are specifically being targeted by the Fulani because of their religious beliefs.

“Two residents of Gwnatu, who are now internally displaced persons, insist that Hausa-Fulani Muslim herdsmen are using the conflict to execute an Islamic agenda of killing Christians and intimidating those that may survive to recant the Christian faith for Islam. . . . Narrating his experience, a pastor said before a raid on his village of Kurmi, he had consistently received phone calls with this message: ‘I am coming for you and your church.’” Similarly, in Nasarawa state, “One of the Christian victims is of the opinion that the conflict is targeted at Christians. He explains that Keffi, Nasarawa and Wamba towns that are traditionally Islam in outlook do not suffer conflicts as Christian enclaves do” (NCSAN). Further, it is reported that many attacks have been accompanied by shouts of “Allahu Akbar” and other Muslim slogans.

These conflicts have caused terrible violence. The 2019 Global Terrorism Index reports that in recent years more people have been killed by Fulani herdsmen than by Boko Haram during the same period: “In 2018, Fulani extremists were responsible for the majority of terror-related deaths in Nigeria at 1,158 fatalities. Terror-related deaths and incidents attributed to Fulani extremists increased by 261 and 308 percent respectively from the prior year. Of 297 attacks by Fulani extremists, over 200 were armed assaults. Over 84 percent of these armed assaults targeted civilians.” The Christian death toll is estimated to be over 7,000 since 2015.

Since so many of the attacks were armed assaults, some have questioned where the herdsmen acquired these weapons, which include AK-47s. It is possible that the herdsmen have been inspired, if not directly supported, by Boko Haram and other extremist groups and have purchased weapons from Islamic militants in the region. Other analysts point out that herders have been forced to arm themselves because of an increase in cattle rustling: groups of armed bandits enter a village, kill the herders and anyone else in their way, and steal the cattle. According to this line of reasoning, even though the light arms may have been initially purchased for defense they inevitably are used in offensives against Christians and other farming communities. Regardless, the use of small arms has made the attacks of the Fulani even deadlier.

Many have been forced to flee the violence. Camps for internally displaced persons (IDP) have been set up, but there has been a notable lack of organization and funding by the government. Displaced people have been forced to self-organize, and as a result there is overcrowding, insufficient medical care, and lack of food and water. “It is possible that the government is deliberately ignoring the need to set up camps for two reasons: first, to avoid a situation whereby the huge population of the displaced attracts the attention of the world to their plight, and second, to conveniently hide the atrocities committed by the Hausa-Fulani Muslim herdsmen” (NCSAN).

NCSAN concludes, “Although there is no evidence to suggest that there exists a contemporary ‘grand design’, deliberately conceived to Islamize the whole of the Middle Belt Region, the level of atrocities against Christians, the choice of targets and the ideology that accompanies these atrocities shows that the Dan Fodio agenda to Islamize Nigeria even before the arrival of the British is still in play. It also indicates that this strategy, though not fulfilled by official conventional resistant groups, is carried out by informal sects, groups and proxies probably with the tacit support of influential figures in Northern Nigeria.”

How to Pray

Here are some specific ways you can pray for Nigerian Christians:

  • Pray that in areas where literacy is low, education would be successful so that people can read the Bible.
  • Pray that ministries such as Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs will be successful in providing Bibles to believers.
  • Pray that converts in the northern states will be comforted and encouraged despite the potential for social alienation and violence.
  • Pray that victims of violence from Boko Haram, Fulani herdsmen, and other attacks will be healed from physical and emotional trauma.
  • Pray that those who have lost loved ones to violence will be able to forgive and find healing.
  • Pray that Fulani Christians would be emboldened and protected as they evangelize to their kinsmen. Likewise, pray that Christians in the north would boldly share their faith.
  • Pray for the physical needs and health of displaced persons, as well as the large number of impoverished people in Nigeria as a whole.
  • Pray that those who have been abducted by Boko Haram and bandits would be set free.
  • Pray that religious freedom will prevail in the nation.
  • Pray for an end to the violence in the Middle Belt region.
  • Pray that unbelieving Nigerians (including the persecutors) will come to know the truth and receive salvation through Yeshua.

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