Release International calls on Christians to pray as violence rises
As violence escalates in Nigeria, UK-based Release International has been hearing claims that the Nigerian military has been turning a blind eye to attacks against Christians. They have heard reports that Nigerian troops are standing by while Christian villagers are slaughtered in plain sight of the military.
Release International is launching a three-month campaign calling for prayer for Christians in Nigeria, who are being killed in their country at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world.
The Out of these ashes campaign is offering churches a resources pack which include information and stories to focus prayer.
‘Across north and central Nigeria attacks on predominantly Christian villages are taking place with shocking frequency,’ says Release International CEO Paul Robinson.
‘Militants are destroying homes and burning churches. They have killed thousands and forced tens of thousands to flee. What we are witnessing is religious and ethnic cleansing aimed at eradicating Christians and seizing their land.
‘The situation is underreported in the mainstream media and the Nigerian government seems powerless to intervene.’
‘We are calling Christians in the UK to commit to praying for Nigeria and its Christian population.’
For the past two decades Christians in northern and central Nigeria have endured violent persecution. Thousands of Christians have been killed and many more have been forced to flee their homes and communities.
Predominantly Christian villages have been overrun, church buildings destroyed, and pastors targeted for assassination. Villagers are being burned out of their homes.
Kidnapping is a growing scourge in Nigeria, with many churches and Christian communities forced to pay hefty ransoms for loved ones and fellow church members. This further subjugates and impoverishes those Christian communities.
In 1999 Zamfara State became the first state in the predominantly Muslim north to impose Sharia (Islamic) Law – even though Nigeria has a secular constitution. Other states followed suit – and violence against Christians followed.
In the north-eastern Borno State terror group Boko Haram called for a jihad and began its campaign of terrorism and violence. Islamic State fighters have joined in.
And across Nigeria’s central belt radical Fulani extremists armed with military weapons continue to ravage Christian communities. They attack villages with assault rifles and cut down men, women and children with machetes as they try to flee.
The violence is often simplistically characterised as clashes between herders and farmers, ignoring the religious dimension behind many of the attacks which have the characteristics of an Islamist jihad.
Blessing lives in a village in Plateau State. Her name has been changed and key details omitted to protect her. She told Release International: ‘The Fulani militants came and began attacking our community and chasing people from their homes. They were going to our homes and destroying them and setting them ablaze.’
Blessing said Nigerian soldiers stationed within sound – and sight – of the gunfire stood by and did nothing at all to help the villagers. Others said the same.
Pastor John – his name has been changed, too – was at a prayer meeting when they heard gunshots.
The military barracks is next to the town. But when the villagers called on the soldiers to help, Pastor John says they refused to protect them.
Soldiers stood by
‘The military, we told them, we called on them; we were calling on them to come and help us, with the police. What they told us clearly was that their hands were tied, that they would not be able to do anything, because they were not being given commands from the government. In fact the [militants] were killing some people in front of the military, who were not doing anything.’
Pastor John and the others believe the attack was religiously motivated. ‘When they were shooting what we heard from them was “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar”. We heard them clearly. So we knew this is Islamic Jihad coming to attack us.’
The Nigerian government is facing growing criticism for not doing enough to defend Christians, who make up roughly half of the country’s population. According to reports more Christians are killed for their faith each year in Nigeria than in the rest of the world put together.
The Archbishop of Jos, Benjamin Kwashi, is a partner of Release International. He says: ‘I’ve done far more funerals in the last 20 years than I have done naming ceremonies, or weddings put together. I’m a grieving pastor. This violence is happening under the nose of a federal government.’
He warns that unless Nigeria’s new President, Bola Tinubu, stops the killings his country will face a refugee crisis that will impact the world.
‘Christians are going to run out of this country. They’re going to leave – in droves. They will not wait for the persecution that will happen.’
Release International has named Nigeria as a key country of concern. It calls for prayer and support for the suffering church in that nation. Its Nigerian partners are providing trauma counselling for victims of violence.