The intensifying persecution facing Christians globally is reflected in the increasing numbers of believers being killed for their faith. In 2021, at least 5,898 Christians paid the ultimate cost for following Jesus, almost 80% of whom come from Nigeria. What makes Christians in Nigeria so prone to violent attacks?
In the past year, more Christians have been killed for their faith in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world combined
If there is one statistic from the latest World Watch List that reflects the escalating persecution facing Christians globally, it’s the number of believers who have been killed for their faith.
In the past year, just under 6,000 Christians are reported to have paid the ultimate cost for following Jesus – an increase of almost 25% from the previous year. Put differently, on average, that’s 16 Christians killed every day for following Jesus. Since many incidents go unreported, the true figure is likely to be higher.
The overwhelming majority of those killed are from Nigeria, which is number seven on the latest list (a rise of two places from last year). This is despite nearly half of its population being Christian. This amounts to a total of 4,650 in the past year. Of those 16 Christians killed every day, at least 12 are from Nigeria. If the World Watch List was based purely on violence, Nigeria would be number one.
The heightened violence against Christians largely comes from four groups: Boko Haram, Islamic State in West African Province (ISWAP), Fulani militants and armed ‘bandits’. The attacks are mostly concentrated in the Muslim-majority north but are rapidly spilling over into the predominantly Christian south.
Boko Haram and its splinter group ISWAP – both of which have pledged allegiance to so-called Islamic State – specifically target believers.
Meanwhile, climate change and environmental degradation are pushing Fulani herdsmen – whose origins are pastoral and Islamic – and their cattle southwards, creating tensions with other farmers, which include Christians. Amongst these Fulani are militants who have turned disputes into something far more sinister, with attacks being driven by ethnic and religious ties.
Killing Christian men is a key strategy of all three groups, because it destroys livelihoods (with men tending to be a family’s main breadwinner) and depopulates Christian communities.
The violence perpetuated by armed bandits is more complex. On the one hand, the activities of these gangs – which includes kidnapping for ransom – tend to be purely criminal rather than religiously motivated. On the other hand, members of the group mostly come from Muslim backgrounds, meaning kidnapped Christians are vulnerable to harsher treatment. Furthermore, there are links between these gangs and militant groups such as Boko Haram.
In one tragic example from April 2021, a group of bandits abducted 22 students and a member of staff from Greenfields University, a mainly Christian private school in Kaduna state. Within a week, five of the kidnapped students were killed.
As the findings of the latest World Watch List suggest, the violence has continued unabated during the pandemic. Nigeria is one of the only places in the world where Covid-19 travel restrictions and lockdowns had little impact on attacks against Christians.
There are other factors at play in seeking to understand the high levels of violence against Christians in Nigeria.
Twelve northern states are governed by Sharia (Islamic law) and there is a widespread culture of impunity where the fundamental rights of non-Muslims are not upheld and violations against Christians go largely unnoticed.
This isn’t helped by the intolerant ideology and incitement to violence perpetuated by non-Christian religious leaders, especially those who are Muslim. Hostility towards believers is also aggravated by the influence of others such as ethnic leaders and ideological pressure groups.
The threat of death for following Jesus can also come far closer to home. Muslims who convert to Christianity do so at risk of severe persecution, even death. This is especially the case in northern Nigeria. Consequently, many such believers flee their homes and states for safety.
These deaths not only leave families grieving the loss of loved ones, but they also leave a trail of hardship and trauma that can last a lifetime. One of the invaluable ways you come alongside our Nigerian family is through a trauma centre which is being extended to accommodate more Christians affected by targeted violence. It will increase the number of beneficiaries from 720 a year to 2,880, amongst whom include widows.
“Open Doors helped me realise the love of God, especially through trauma healing and the other help,” shares Amina, whose husband was killed by Boko Haram militants. “Were it not for God’s love, I couldn’t have gotten all these things. You showed love by caring for those that are suffering, those that are in trauma, those that are in trouble. You make them realise that God still exists.”
Heavenly Father. You are ‘the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort’ (2 Corinthians 1:3). We ask that those in Nigeria who have lost loved ones because of their faith will know the full measure of this truth. Heal their trauma and give them fresh hope for the future. Protect our brothers and sisters from harm and thwart all evil plans. Draw militants and bandits to You. Stir government and security forces to greater protection of Christians. Amen.
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