Christianophobia

Christianophobia

It’s Sneak Peek Week on EerdWord, when we’re sharing excerpts from four of this month’s most exciting new releases.

Today’s excerpt is taken from Rupert Shortt’s chapter on Nigeria in Christianophobia: A Faith under Attack.

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An orgy of violence at Christmas 2010, in Plateau state, a deeply troubled region of central Nigeria, is a stark example of the country’s chronic sectarian problems. Human Rights Watch and other groups calculated that more than 200 people, including children, were hacked to death, burned alive, “disappeared,” or wrenched off buses and murdered in tit-for-tat crimes.

The violence was triggered by bombings on Christmas Eve at two churches in Jos, the state capital. An Islamist website published a statement by Boko Haram (which roughly translates as “Western education is sinful”), a militant group based in northern Nigeria, claiming responsibility for the attacks. After that, scores of Muslims and Christians were hunted down on the basis of their ethnic and religious identities. The tension intensified in early 2011. Eight young Muslim men driving to a wedding on 7 January were attacked after taking a wrong turning and arriving in a Christian village, in the Barkin Ladi area. On the following day, the army exhumed five of their bodies from shallow graves nearby. The three others are assumed to have been murdered as well. Muslim youths in Jos went on the rampage as these corpses were being disinterred. They attacked Christians, mostly ethnic Igbo market traders, around the well-known Dilimi market. Witnesses reported that the victims had been butchered with machetes and cutlasses: forty-eight Igbo civilians were killed. In revenge on 8 January, at least fourteen Muslims were murdered in Jos and surrounding communities. In one instance, the Muslims on an interstate bus were separated from their fellow passengers and hacked to death. Then, on 10 January, gunmen attacked Waren, a mainly Christian village south of Jos, burning homes and killing four women and seven children, among others. During the month that followed, forty-two Muslims and fifty-one Christians disappeared in suspicious circumstances in and around Jos. The response of the authorities to all these crimes, both at state and federal levels, was paltry.

The bloody pattern was repeated a year on. About forty people were killed in a wave of bombings targeting churches in northern and central areas on Christmas Day 2011. Most of the deaths were at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Madalla, Niger state, about 25 miles from Abuja. Thirty-five worshippers were killed when bombs were hurled at them as they emerged from Mass. Christian Solidarity Worldwide disclosed that “scores more” were injured. The Mountain of Fire Ministries Church in Jos was also attacked; and there were multiple explosions in Damaturu, Yobe state. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the attacks. Release International, which campaigns for persecuted Christians, said in a statement that its partners in Nigeria believe the Islamists’ aim is to tear the country in two to create a separate north ruled by sharia law.

An already tense situation in Jos grew yet more strained on 11 March 2012. Here is how one of my contacts, living very close to the violence, reported events to me in an email:

Dear Rupert, please tell people that there’s been another bomb attack on a church in Nigeria — less than two hours ago, and in Jos. The church is called St Finbarr’s, and is in a prosperous suburb called Rayfield, where Christians predominate. I was going to Mass there over Christmas while staying with a friend who lives less than a kilometre away. Undoubtedly Boko Haram. Apparently two cars rammed into the gate of the compound; the explosion caused the ceiling of the church to collapse. Up to 20 deaths — and there have been retaliatory killings of Hausas in the area. There may be further trouble in the main part of Jos, so we are not going out.

What my correspondent could not have known at the time was that more Muslims than Christians died in this instance, because the revenge attacks were so brutal.

I visited St. Theresa’s, Madalla, a few months later — shortly after dozens more Christians had been killed by Boko Haram in Maiduguri, capital of the north-eastern state of Borno, on 29 April — and found a community still living in a state of grief and dread. Madalla is so poor (St. Theresa’s stands opposite a large shanty town) that evidence of the bombing was at first hard to detect. The signs of recent horrors were indirect: in the presence of heavily armed soldiers; in the scaffolding on adjoining buildings, which were less robust than the church; and in the now surreal-looking Christmas decorations, including a tinsel MERRY CHRISTMAS sign, that were still hanging above the west door. The interior of St. Theresa’s was hollow apart from the untidy rows of benches and a huge mural depicting the Last Supper, loosely inspired by Leonardo’s, filling the space behind the altar. Arriving unannounced, I was warmly received by Fr. Isaac Achi, the parish priest. He had the calm of a man whose calling leaves him with no option but to remain among his flock.

Click to order Rupert Shortt’s Christianophobia: A Faith under Attack