Daniel Harkins investigates the shocking violence against Christians in Nigeria and why so few in the UK care.
On June 5th parishioners of St Francis Catholic Church in Owo, Nigeria attended Mass, as they do – and as we do – each Sunday. As the celebration took place, gunmen stormed the building and killed at least 40 people, five of them children.
The attack, like so many others in Nigeria, has quickly drifted out of the international headlines and away from people’s consciousness.
It has merged into a general – and insulting – stereotype of an Africa divided by ethnic, civil and religious confiict, and has been quickly forgotten.
Open Doors, a charity which highlights Christian persecution, has a name for this: persecution eclipse.
It argues that in many situations persecution and civil conflict overlap to the extent that the former is rendered almost invisible by the latter. Nigeria is a good example.
‘Persecution eclipse,’ the charity argued in a paper, ‘is a dangerous set of lenses that minimises, overlooks or denies the suffer- ing of a victim of persecution.’
It ‘shifts the focus of interrogation from religious freedom violations to confiict analysis’ and leads to religious freedom becoming a ‘casualty in a situation where genuine persecution becomes lost in a murky debate’.
We can see this in the news coverage of Nigeria. “Are attacks on Christians in Nigeria on the rise?” the BBC asked in a June 11 ‘Reality Check’ article.
Well, yes, as the article makes clear, there have been at least 23 attacks on churches, clergy and staff this year, compared to 31 for the whole of 2021 and 18 in 2020.
So why frame the article as a question? Why focus, as many such articles do, on ‘vigilante mobs and bandits’ who are ‘not affiliated with any particular group’.
Other such articles twist themselves in knots to avoid framing the issue as one of Christian persecution.
They discuss for instance the drying up of water sources in the majority Muslim north of Nigeria, where the Fulani herdsmen – who are responsible for many of the attacks on farmlands in the Christian south – come from.
The President of Ireland Michael Higgins even linked the June 5 attack to the ‘consequences of climate change,’ drawing criticism from Nigeria’s bishops (he later rowed-back his comments).
Of course the situation in Nigeria, as with all confiicts, is complicated.
There are interlinked, multi-faceted reasons for strife in any country. But the years-long brutal slaughter of Christians in Nigeria needs to be described as just that, as Christian persecution.
In addition to the June 5 attack, horrors witnessed by the country’s Christian population include the murder of four priests this year alone.
Fr John Mark Cheitnum, 44, was abducted and killed last month.
Maria Lozano, from Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), said the priest was ‘deeply engaged in giving a voice to the innocent victims of violence in his diocese, who number in the hundreds at least’.
“Now he himself has become a victim in this spiral of death,” she added.
Such attacks are now unfortunately common for the country’s Christians. In just one Nigerian state, 68 Christians were killed – with many more abducted or displaced – in two months to July, ACN said.
The situation is likely to get worse as the country approaches presidential elections early next year. The two main political parties traditionally choose a Muslim and a Christian for their president and vice president candidate spots.
However, the current ruling party has dismayed Christian groups by choosing an all-Muslim ticket for the 2023 race.
Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Abuja said political leaders ‘simply care more about their personal welfare and official privileges’ as he called on them to do more to protect the Nigerian people.
Political leaders globally have also failed the Christians of Nigeria. Last year, without explanation, the US Government removed Nigeria from its list of countries it says have particular religious freedom concerns.
As Open Doors USA CEO David Curry argued, a key step in addressing the problem is adding Nigeria back onto the list.
“[US President Joe] Biden has the opportunity to send a clear signal that the US won’t stand by as the innocent faithful are persecuted,” he said. “He should make the redesignation and enforce sanctions without delay.”
In the UK too, as in the US, our politicians need to be prepared to stand up more against Christian persecution, as they often do for harassment and attacks on other minority groups around the world. We cannot allow the murder of mass-goers to become half-remembered statistics, eclipsed by political conflict and strife.
Daniel Harkins is a journalist, former editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer and contributing editor to The Scottish Catholic.