Two Catholic priests and 15 of their parishioners were murdered during an early morning Mass on April 24.
Hosting the Nigerian president at the White House Monday, President Donald J. Trump denounced the recent violence against Christians in the African country and insisted that it cannot be allowed to continued.
“We’ve had serious problems with Christians who have been murdered, killed in Nigeria,” Trump said during a noon meeting with Muhammadu Buhari. “We’re going to work on that problem and work on that problem very, very hard, because we can’t allow that to happen.”
Trump reiterated that pledge in a press conference in the Rose Garden, with Buhari by his side.
“We are deeply concerned by religious violence in Nigeria including the burning of churches and the killing and persecution of Christians. It’s a horrible story,” Trump said. “We encourage Nigeria and the federal state and local leaders to do everything in their power to immediately secure the affected communities and to protect innocent civilians of all faiths including Muslims and including Christians.”
Two Catholic priests and 15 of their parishioners were murdered during an early morning Mass on April 24 in Benue State. State police spokesman Terver Akase told CNN the attackers, thought to be Fulani herdsmen, set many homes on fire:
“The herdsmen burnt nearly 50 houses during the attack and sacked the entire community,” Akase told CNN. “We expect arrests to be made because they (attackers) are becoming more brazen,” he added.
Buhari stated through Twitter that the “latest assault on innocent persons is particularly despicable. Violating a place of worship, killing priests and worshippers is not only vile, evil and satanic, it is clearly calculated to stoke up religious conflict and plunge our communities into endless bloodletting.”
But the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria has had enough, after years of attacks by Boko Haram and Fulani herdsman and an apparent unwillingness of civil authorities to offer real assistance. Referring to April 24 attackers as “a wicked and inhuman gang of the rampaging and inhuman terrorists,” the bishops said in an April 26 statement that they have “turned the vast lands of the Middle Belt and other parts of Nigeria into a vast graveyard.”
The bishops noted a January 3 social media post by one of the victims, Fr. Joseph Gor, who said that locals have no weapons to defend themselves from Fulani herdsman in the area. The bishops lamented, “Their desperate cries for security and help went unheeded by those who should have heard them.”
“They could have fled, but true to their vocation, they remained to continue to serve their people right unto death,” the bishops continued.
The bishops charged that federal security agencies have turned a blind eye to Nigerians who have become “sitting ducks in their homes, farms, highway, and now, even in their sacred places of worship.”
The statement noted that for two years, the bishops and others have asked Buhari to “rethink the configuration of his security apparatus and strategy.”
“Along with millions of Nigerians, we have expressed our lack of confidence in the security agencies, which the president has deliberately placed in the hands of the adherents of only one religion,” they said. “On February 8 of this year, when we paid the president a courtesy call, we raised alarm over the security of the nation and the spate of violence perpetrated with impunity by people who have neither respect for the value of human life nor regard for the laws of our country, urging him to take the most drastic steps to stem the tide of this evil in our land. … As leaders, we have consistently asked our people to remain peaceful and law-abiding, even in the face of the worst form of provocation. Today, we Christians feel violated and betrayed in a nation that we have all continued to sacrifice and pray for.”
According to J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, Africa’s most populous country is both the most populous Muslim country and the most populous Christian country on the continent.
Another expert on Nigeria, Nathan Wineinger, Director of Policy and Coalitions at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, explained that the attacks have their roots in small-scale farmer-herder conflicts but have escalated into “eradication of entire villages, using sophisticated weapons and Boko Haram-like tactics.”
“Unlike persecution motivated by ideology, the rising Middle-Belt violence does not appear to have a clear motivator, Wineinger said in a briefing paper. “Rather, its likely root causes are many — political, economic, social, and environmental.”
Nevertheless, the violence has disproportionally impacted religious minority communities, he explained.
He also cautioned that not all Fulani people are behind the attacks, nor do they all support them. “Reports are increasing of threatened villagers retaliating against and killing innocent Fulani people, a horrific development that some argue is under-reported in the international media,” Wineinger said.
“Security and rule of law are needed now more than ever in Nigeria to stop the violence and to forestall vigilantism,” he stated.
Fr. Chinedu O. Anieke, of the Catholic Institute for Development, Justice and Peace in Enugu, Nigeria, said in an interview Tuesday that Nigerians need to be more engaged in the political process and that state elections might be even more important than national elections, as state-level leaders have more direct influence on local policies.
He also suggested that Catholics in Nigeria might organize a nationwide peaceful march ahead of next year’s elections, to help the world understand what is happening in Nigeria.
“The international community has the voice to change what is happening in Nigeria by condemning what is going on and call on the Nigerian government to take action,” Fr. Anieke said, otherwise sanctions could be leveled against the Nigerian government.
Reacting to the White House visit of Muhammadu Buhari, he said that the Nigerian president did not mention the Fulani herdsmen attacks specifically. “It was rather a general talk on security promises,” he said, suggesting that there is an effort to sweep the matter under the carpet, “pretending that the main issue is Boko Haram terrorism.”
“Let the international communities not be deceived,” Fr. Anieke said. “The dangers posed by Fulani herdsmen to peace and security of Nigerians especially against Christians and farmers are far more dangerous than that of Boko Haram. Priests and the religious have been kidnapped and communities burnt. We are not comfortable with one-sided security talks between the United States of America and the President of Nigeria.”