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Nigeria’s Religious-Cleansing Crisis Is Not Due to Climate Change

nina_shea
nina_shea
Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Religious Freedom
Clergymen carry white coffins containing the bodies of priests allegedly killed by Fulani herdsmen, for burial at Ayati-Ikpayongo in Gwer East district of Benue State, north-central Nigeria on May 22, 2018. (Emmy Ibu/AFP via Getty Images)
Caption
Clergymen carry white coffins containing the bodies of priests allegedly killed by Fulani herdsmen, for burial at Ayati-Ikpayongo in Gwer East district of Benue State, north-central Nigeria on May 22, 2018. (Emmy Ibu/AFP via Getty Images)

Sixteen days after the massacre on Pentecost Sunday in Nigeria, at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Ondo state, we know one thing for certain: Nigeria’s government is letting the attackers get away with it. No one has been arrested in the murders of the 40 congregants and the maiming of scores more. Despite an onslaught in which the terrorists surrounded and shot up the city church for 25 minutes, the government has failed to identify a single suspect. That fits with the general pattern of impunity for Islamists who target Nigerian Christians, and it is why there is no end to it in sight.

On June 14, I spoke with Ondo’s Bishop Jude Arogundade about the attack. He elaborated on his widely quoted statements in which he took issue with Western leaders who attribute this and other unprovoked attacks on Christians by militant Fulani Muslim herdsmen to climate-change-driven communal disputes over resources. That position has long been held by the State Department and influenced Secretary Antony Blinken’s delisting last fall of Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” for religious persecution.

Ireland’s President Michael Higgins repeated these excuses for jihadi murder after the Pentecost attack, defending the Fulani herdsmen in the context of a mass shooting, as “pastoral peoples who are among the foremost victims of the consequences of climate change.” In a letter, Bishop Jude denounced Higgins’s words as “far fetched” and “deflections from the truth.”

The bishop insists that the atrocity is part of a religious-cleansing campaign to eradicate Christians, and Muslims who are not perceived to be Muslim enough. It was ignited a decade ago by Boko Haram Islamists in the northeast. It has since been spread by various Islamist militants, who are increasingly nomadic Fulani. While Christian farmers were murdered in their fields before in the southwest, this is the first large-scale attack against a church in this region, he said. This violence has spread largely because of government policies that are biased in favor of Fulani, even those who are now radicalized jihadis.

Christian farms in the north, particularly in southern Kaduna state, have been hard hit. “Most attacks are carried out by Fulani men (tagged as either unknown gunmen or bandits) dressed in Khaki, riding in military vehicles, and carrying sophisticated weapons,” the Kukah Center, which was founded by Bishop Matthew Kukah of Sokoto state, reported in March. The Fulani attackers “kill, burn houses and churches while shouting ‘Allahu Akbar.’

The Kukah Center finds that “many communities have been displaced and many farmers are unable to plant and harvest their crops. Consequently, hunger and poverty has risen, and the economy has deteriorated by the day.” In fact, thousands in southern Kaduna, a mostly Christian region, have been killed, and millions more are displaced and destitute. The jihadis can take over and even change the names of entire villages without any government response.

After the Pentecost massacre, locals are certain, Fulani waged bloody attacks that killed 32 Christians in four southern Kaduna communities — Unguwan Gamu, Dogon Noma, Ungwan Sarki, and Maikori. The church and many houses were torched. There, too, the government failed to respond. In Benue state, on May 20, St. Michael’s Agasha parish in Makurdi suffered lethal attacks when Fulani murdered farmers in their fields and burned their homes. In these pages last August, I wrote of similar Fulani offensives in Christian villages on Kaduna’s border with Plateau, describing a nearby military unit that stood down until the attacks ended. These are only a few examples.

“Nowhere seems to be safe again in our country, not even the sacred precincts of a church,” commented Archbishop Lucius Ugorji, president of the Nigerian Catholic bishops’ conference, after the Pentecost attack. The bishops express grave concern about the abductions of their priests, now brazenly conducted from inside church compounds by Fulani jihadis and others — with complete impunity. They understand that the Christian presence in the north is doomed if its leaders are relentlessly targeted.

The Kukah Center documented the following: Father Stephen Ojapah and Father Oliver Okpara were abducted by suspected armed Fulani on May 25, from the rectory of St Patrick’s Church in Katsina. On May 11, Father Joseph Bako died in captivity after being kidnapped from Saint John’s Church in Kaduna on March 8. On March 27, Father Leo Raphael Ozigi of St. Mary’s Church was abducted after leaving Mass. On March 24, in Zaria, while traveling to the diocesan secretariat, Father Felix Zakari Fidson was abducted for 37 days. On February 6, Father Joseph Danjuma Shekari of St. Monica’s Church in Kaduna was kidnapped from his parish residence for four days.

Other Christian leaders are targeted, too. The Methodist Church reported on May 29 that eight Fulani militants abducted its head, His Eminence Samuel Kanu-Uche, along with a chaplain and Bishop Dennis Mark of Owerri. The three were taken into the bush and tortured. They were released days later after the payment of a $240,000 ransom. “We will finish you people and take over this land,” the militants warned, according to Kanu, who added, “They claimed that Nigeria belonged to Fulani.”

While no Muslim imams are reported abducted, the sultan of Sokoto was threatened by a mob for bravely criticizing the May 12 deadly bludgeoning, on a campus in Sokoto, of Christian student Deborah Yakubu, for alleged blasphemy against Islam. The police dispersed the mob setting fires around the sultan’s residence. Bishop Kukah also protested Yakubu’s murder and the fact that only two suspects were arrested, on minor charges. In response, in a viral video I viewed, an imam incited his followers, threatening: “The leader of the infidels of Sokoto state, they said he made some statements. . . . Matthew Hassan Kukah, so let him continue to do, I swear we shall kill him. . . . I swear, we shall kill you.” All diocesan Masses were then suspended following attacks that “devastated” two parishes. Nigeria’s Christian Association implored the government to protect the bishop.

For over a decade, Christians have been fleeing ISIS affiliates committing enslavement and religiously motivated murders in Borno and neighboring northeastern states. Now all Nigerian Christians, nearly half of the country’s 216 million people, live in fear of Fulani herdsmen jihadis, who have the apparent tacit approval of President Muhammadu Buhari, the son of a Fulani chieftain, and, as victims of climate change, they have had the sympathy of the State Department and other Western leaders. As elsewhere, this targeting of a religious group occurs in a larger national context of crime, conflict, and terrorist violence, but it is no less an egregious and deliberate persecution of defenseless Christians.

On May 16, Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland was in Nigeria and met with Bishop Jude. Hopefully, she listened and will redirect policy to end this horrific religious cleansing.

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