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The Crisis in Maiduguri

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PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP

Philip Jenkins - published on 10/31/14

In the battle for religious freedom, let's not forget Africa.

Unless they have family ties to Nigeria, few Western Christians are likely to know the name of Maiduguri. That has to change. Maiduguri is presently the setting for one of the world’s most significant struggles for religious freedom, and even for Christian survival outside the West.

In recent months, we have heard much of the ancient Middle Eastern communities devastated by ISIS and the Islamic State. Such coverage is necessary and appropriate, but it distracts attention from the quite comparable violence occurring in very different regions, especially in West Africa. The most important single battlefront is Nigeria, a country that is presently home to 85 million Christians, and that number may exceed 200 million by 2050. Nigeria is crucial to the fate of Christianity in black Africa, not to mention the vast global presence of its migrant communities.  

Christians constitute just under half the population of Nigeria, who are mainly concentrated in the country’s southern and central regions. The predominantly Muslim north is nevertheless home to some thriving communities, including Catholics and Anglicans besides locally-derived churches. In recent years, those churches have come under increasing pressure, as Muslim majority states have declared themselves under the rule of Sharia law, and even more acutely since 2009 with the rise of the lethal terrorist movement Boko Haram. In terms of its savage cruelty and intolerance, Boko Haram yields nothing to ISIS.

The story of Islamist violence features sporadically in Western media with reports of deadly suicide bombings and mass kidnappings. Most consumers of news find it difficult to contextualize such stories except as part of a generalized stereotype of African chaos and civil war. A single case-study, though, indicates the scale of the horror, and the issues at stake.

Maiduguri is the capital of Borno State, which lies in Nigeria’s far north-east, on the border with Niger and Chad. Historically, that region is strongly Muslim, and has long looked to its Islamic neighbors to the north and east. A Christian presence emerged during the twentieth century, and Christians — mainly Roman Catholics — now make up perhaps three percent of the state’s five million people. The Catholic diocese of Maiduguri covers the whole state.

In the past five years, Maiduguri has been one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a Christian. Maiduguri itself has witnessed repeated firefights, as a center of Boko Haram activism, and the movement recently claimed the nearby city of Gwoza as the seat of its caliphate, operating under full Islamic law. Islamist militants have repeatedly targeted Maiduguri, where they so easily find Christian victims. In 2009, hundreds of Christians were killed after refusing to convert to Islam, and Christian businesses have been repeatedly attacked. In 2011, 25 were killed in a bombing attack in a beer garden. Individual worshipers have been shot, or hacked to death with machetes. Rape is commonplace.

Churches have been the settings for some notorious attacks. Multiple churches were assailed on Christmas Day 2012, and several worshipers were killed in one of Maiduguri’s Baptist congregations. All denominations have suffered —Winner’s Chapel, Church of Christ in Nigeria, Brethren. Because they are so widespread and well attended, Catholic churches have repeatedly been hit. In 2011, several worshipers perished in a bomb attack on St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In 2013, one cleric claimed that 50 of 52 Catholic churches within the diocese had been destroyed, or severely damaged.

The statements put out by diocesan authorities are heart-rending. For the historically minded, they make us think of the words of churches in the fifth century facing the depredations of barbarian invaders during the fall of the Roman Empire, and pleading desperately for outside help:

It is over thirty days now that our church communities in Gulak, Shuwa, Kaya, Michika, Bazza… were sacked by the callous and nefarious attacks of the Boko Haram terrorists… Thousands displaced, many killed, and others forcibly conscripted… We have almost two hundred deserted church communities by worshipers, most of which have been razed down over the last few weeks.

The effects of such intimidation are easy to imagine. Reading scripture and history, Christians might accept that martyrdom is a possible consequence of faith, but it takes a truly heroic believer to risk that peril for him — or herself, or to place one’s children in jeopardy. Is it worth the risk of attending a Christmas midnight mass if the celebration is likely to be bombed or machine-gunned? Numbers attending services have fallen disastrously, and many churches stand shuttered, waiting for the restoration of security. That could be a very long wait. Nigerian authorities show little willingness or ability to eradicate the terrorist menace, which consolidates and grows daily.

In the face of such a crisis, Christian numbers are likely to contract rapidly, mainly through forced migration or exile, or even conversion to Islam. A few heroic diehards will linger, but the long-term fate of Christianity in Borno and neighboring states looks very tenuous. As in Northern Iraq, much of northern Nigeria could become a Christian-free zone. After that, we can only speculate how much more widely the Islamists will advance, until they threaten the country’s Christian heartlands.

What is happening in Maiduguri today could foreshadow events much further afield. Western governments and churches have to formulate a response while there are still Christians to protect.

Philip Jenkinsis a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor Universityand author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

Tags:
AfricaIslamist MilitantsNigeriaReligious Freedom
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