Religious Freedom Advocate Sounds the Alarm on Nigeria and Its Persecuted Christians
A man reacts as he reunites with his son who was among those who were kidnapped upon their release in Katsina, on December 18, 2020. – Exhausted and dishevelled, several hundred Nigerian schoolboys seized in a mass abduction claimed by Boko Haram experienced their first full day of freedom on December 18, 2020 after a nearly week-long ordeal. (photo: Kola Sulaimon / AFP/Getty)
Vice President Eric Patterson of the Religious Freedom Institute discusses the recent uptick in violence in Nigeria, the two most oppressive factions on the ground, and how the country could face the same fate as Rwanda if international inaction continues.
As chilling testimony was heard on Capitol Hill this month during a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom panel about heinous acts being perpetrated against Christians in Nigeria, there seems to be a deafening silence on the widespread persecution that the West African country is enduring. The latest violence occurred over the weekend with 100 gunmen attacking a government school, abducting 70 students on June 19. Countless priests and seminaries have been killed or kidnapped within the last year. Since 2015, more than 2,000 churches have been destroyed and the country has witnessed a mass exodus of 4 to 5 million Christians who have fled the civil war-torn country.
Eric Patterson, vice president at the Religious Freedom Institute, spoke with the Register offering gripping details on how the situation has spiraled into this catastrophic state, and why he says Christians in the country are facing expulsion unless something is done.
Thank you for your time today, Eric, to shed light on some of the tragic stories coming out of Nigeria. We’re hearing about mass killings, kidnappings of Christians and other minorities — testimony that was heard on Capitol Hill this month about babies being “ripped from their mother’s womb” by Islamic terrorists. Now, the woman offering testimony was from the northeastern region of Nigeria. And I do understand that there are two factions at play here — Boko Haram more to the north and the dire situation in Nigeria’s middle belt, where you said last year that Christians are facing expulsion if no one came to their aid. What does the situation on the ground look like?
In the middle belt, as you were just suggesting, this is a part of the country where the demographics are more evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. These groups are from different tribal groups, and, historically, part of what is going on is that there are differences between those who are cattle herders against farmers and village folk. But what we’ve seen is that this is not just about land or water. This has been the torching of churches, the beheading of Christians, the seeking out of Christians, and violating their bodies in the way that you just described in a very systematic way. And it has been going on for years now.
A recent report says more than 12,000 Christians in Nigeria have been killed in attacks since June of 2015. Some consider Boko Haram to be synonymous with ISIS. But they have a very different origin. Can you tell us about this terrorist group?
Turning our attention to strictly Christian persecution — amid this widespread terrorism — as you were just discussing, Nigeria’s middle belt seems to be where we are seeing most of the deaths. The bloodshed seems to be at the hands of the Fulani. And I’m not sure if I’m correct on that, but can you tell us about the Fulani — who they are and how long they’ve had this stronghold? I believe the middle belt is where we are seeing so many reports of priests and seminarians being kidnapped, just remembering seminarian Michael Nnadi killed earlier this year.
That’s exactly right. So we often hear the term Hausa-Fulani, which are two distinct but intermarried Muslim predominant tribes that are among the biggest in all of Nigeria. Interestingly, over the past decade, a lot of people haven’t realized that although these two have often worked together, there has actually been Fulani-on-Hausa violence as well. But the Fulani is a large national group, tens of millions of people in the region.
Instead of it simply being about land or water or growing populations that are butting heads, the spray painting of Allahu Akbar on churches — the burning of churches, the targeting of seminarians, the recent decapitation of priests, the attacks on missionaries, nuns, evangelists, pastors — that is religious violence directed specifically at Christians. And just this year, the reports are that at least 1,300 Christians had been killed in that region in Nigeria this year alone.
Considering this wave of terrorism we are seeing from these two factions taking hold in Nigeria, many consider religious freedom to be the precursor here, leading then to religious disagreement, but you have a very unique, different idea. You say it’s actually religious repression that leads to this type of aggression. Can you expound on that?
Yes, what typically happens is not that an opening towards democracy, human rights, respect for one’s neighbors, religious tolerance — that package of liberties — we don’t really have places in the world where, as a country becomes more like that, people start killing each other more [that leads to this]. It’s typically the opposite. It is when you have the breakdown of institutions, when you have politicians who will emphasize not what binds the country together — but by my tribe over that tribe, “I’m going to deliver for my people, not those people,” when leaders scapegoat the other. All of those are the types of things that heighten the cleavages that may already exist because of different tribal origins. And in Nigeria, that’s what we’re seeing. And when adults, when leaders, when religious leaders, such as clerics who support Boko Haram or give justification to these Fulani tribesmen in any of these cases, often, what they’re doing is they’re radicalizing the parts of the religion that justify “Oh, they’re an infidel; you can take them out.” “Oh, they’re a Western influence preaching Christianity; you can take them out.” “Oh, they’re women who can be slaves or sex slaves because they’re second-class citizens.” And so it’s a cycle of violent language and rhetoric. And when you train up a bunch of teenage boys, they become very, very violent.
Last year, Nigeria was listed by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as a country of “particular concern,” which brought the country under the same radar as some of the biggest religious-freedom violators like Iran and China. Given the nonstop uptick of violence we are seeing in Nigeria, was else can be done? Is the current administration taking the situation seriously?
It’s heartening that finally the U.S. Department of State took this step in December of 2020. To list Nigeria as a country of particular concern alongside, as you said, Iran and North Korea and others. But what is being done, I have to say, that it’s pretty disappointing that the current ambassador [Mary Beth Leonard] there has dismissed that there has any religious element to this and has said in a recent interview that these are just old grievances based on land and water rights. … If you don’t get the right diagnosis of a problem, then you can’t solve the problem. And not taking into account the way that there has been a radicalization of the violence along jihadist lines misses the types of things that are lurking in the background and what has made the conditions in Nigeria increasingly violent — that if there was not a religious dimension, then we wouldn’t have Boko Haram. If there wasn’t a religious dimension, we wouldn’t have the Islamic State in that area, and, of course, we wouldn’t have the targeting of churches and Christians. So much more needs to be done.
Earlier this year, Archbishop Augustine Obiora Akubeze, the president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference, said the attacks against Christians are really due to a lack of security in the entire country. Do you see it that way?
I really don’t see it that way. And I think there’s a number of reasons for that. One is it sometimes feels like it’s just impossible to get our hands around this. The second is the U.S. has never really devoted enough time, attention and resources to Africa. Another is it seems like this administration is dragging its feet on these types of very, very real issues, really around the globe.
Given your wealth of wisdom on religious freedom and the grave situation on the ground, how can we as Catholics help those being persecuted in Nigeria?
We can be praying for the Nigerian government—that prayer of goodwill that its leaders will have the capacity and the ability to stand up against these things… To pray that regional leaders in West Africa and international leaders will have creative solutions and the will to intervene in positive ways such as developing professional security forces in Nigeria that will help. We need to be praying about what we can do as believers to ameliorate suffering whether that’s through giving or things there on the ground.