April 16, 2010
The narrowly averted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit by extremist Muslim Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab put a new face on the global jihadist movement. The belated arrest of Abdulmutallab, the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker, shocked many in the West, who had not foreseen the rising threat from Africa's largest country.
In hindsight, we probably should have seen it coming. Nigeria's Christians have experienced violent Islamic extremism over the last decade and have received precious little support from the West. Any response to global terrorism that does not support those facing it on the front lines is strategically and morally inadequate.
Nigeria, which gained independence in 1960 and is home to 150 million people, is divided roughly evenly between a predominately Christian and evangelical south and a mostly Muslim north. There are wide differences between the cultures of the south and north. This, combined with the efforts of the Muslims to retain political control, has given way to the country's turbulent post-independence history of tension, violence, coups and civil war.
Since 1999, when Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, was elected president after 16 years of military rule, an increasingly radicalized Muslim population has agitated for the implementation of sharia (strict Islamic law) in areas under its control. In 2000, Sharia was enacted in northern Zamfara state, making it the first to come under Islamic law. Today all 12 northern states are under sharia, despite the fact that many Christians live in these states as well. Islamists are intent on spreading Islamic law southward to states where Muslims do not hold the majority. Analysts call this middle area the country's "fault line."
Despite the first successful transfer of power in 2003, the national mood has been anything but peaceful. Muslim mobs, sometimes encouraged by jihadists reportedly coming from North Africa, have killed minority Christians living in areas under their control and razed churches and homes in too many incidents to list. In some cases, Christians have retaliated.
Historian Philip Jenkins estimates that, between 2000 and 2005, violence between Christians and Muslims killed or displaced 50,000 people in just one of Nigeria's 36 states. The increasing radicalization of Islam in Nigeria mirrors the same trend globally and has led to increasing numbers of Christians under attack.
Jos is a city of half a million people and is the capital of Plateau state in Nigeria's middle belt. Islamists have targeted it for Sharia, and the results have been tragic for Christians. In November 2008, a disputed election that awarded a government post to a Christian was followed by Muslim rioting that killed 300 people and displaced 10,000.
This past January, violence in Jos broke out again. About 400 more people, Christians and Muslims, lost their lives and another 18,000 were displaced. Then, on March 7, Muslims slaughtered as many as 300 to 500 Christians just south of the city.
Elizabeth Kendall, an international religious liberty analyst, sees a confluence of four trends in Nigeria that explains much of the mayhem, especially in places such as Jos: (1) a massive population growth rate, (2) rapid urbanization, (3) the southward migration of Muslims into traditionally non-Muslim areas and (4) the global revival of fundamentalist Islam.
Even amid Nigeria's instability—some might even say because of it—Christians have been active in spreading the gospel. Jenkins says that between 1900 and 1970, Christians grew from 1% of Nigeria's population to 44 percent, mostly among animist groups. Now churches and parachurch agencies are increasingly focusing on their responsibility to share the Word with Muslims.
The Nigeria Evangelical Missionary Association, which represents 95 churches and missions agencies working among 250 unreached groups in 56 countries, has announced goals to train 50,000 Nigerian missionaries over the next 15 years. They will go to Nigeria, elsewhere in Africa, the Arab Peninsula and Jerusalem—all places where Muslims are concentrated.
Given all these trends, how should we respond?
First, we need to understand that the freedom to practice and share one's faith is a human rights issue. We must join forces with people of every religion to support this right. While the solution to Nigeria's longstanding interfaith clashes will involve political steps, we need to see religious liberty first and foremost as God-given.
We also need to become aware of the plight of Nigerian Christians, who constitute one of the most vital and dynamic branches of Christianity in the world. We must advocate for them through all avenues available to bring about a lasting peace. Then we should consistently lift up these brothers and sisters in prayer and support them with the physical and spiritual resources they need to rebuild their lives, homes and churches.
Open Doors International has joined key religious liberty organizations around the world in calling for prayer for Nigeria. The group—called the Religious Liberty Partnership (RLP)—with member organizations in 18 countries, has just released a document called "The Cyprus Statement."
The Cyprus Statement acknowledges some positive elements within Nigeria, including the role that the church is playing, but expresses deep concern about the ways in which the situation is being handled by the government. In addition, the statement calls on the worldwide church to pray for work toward the religious rights of all Nigerians, to provide practical humanitarian support and to support reconciliation efforts.
Just as Nigeria's problems are complex, so are the solutions. But standing with the country's beleaguered Christians is the least we can do for those suffering for their faith in Jesus Christ.