A Nigerian playwright once wrote that only a mad man would want to lead Nigeria. Christian president Goodluck Jonathan is desperately trying to govern a deeply divided nation. Movements like an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria instigate fear with their violent and deadly attacks on Christian communities and security forces, causing thousands of Christians to relocate. The Church in Nigeria struggles daily between living out biblical commandments and facing earthly realities.
Nigeria has a long history of Islamic violence against Christians. Many Muslim leaders want to conquer the Christian territories by force, but the mayhem, that an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria (“Western Education is forbidden”) causes, is unprecedented. Boko Haram’s official name, Jama’atu Ahlus Sunnah Lid Da’awati Wal a struggle or fight against the enemies of Islam. or “People for the spreading of Islam by mission and jihad,” says a lot about the intentions of the members.
On August 26, 2011, Mohammed Abul Barra, a 27-year-old auto mechanic, drove his car into the U.N. House in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. Security camera footage shows that he waited exactly 16 seconds before detonating his bomb. It was the start of a new era in Islamic terrorism in Nigeria. Mohammed was the first suicide-bomber in his country. Months before, an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria had hooked up with the like-minded organizations Al-Qaeda, in the Maghreb, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. They learned from them how to use suicide-bombers, how to make improvised explosive devices and how to wire cars. Christians in the north are especially vulnerable targets. In recent months, hundreds have lost their lives in terrorist attacks. Bombings and raids by heavily armed men are the terrorists’ preferred methods. Most shocking was Boko Haram’s all-out, open attack on security forces in Kano city early this year. Dozens of police agents and soldiers and many civilians lost their lives. As a result, almost two million Christians left the state to return to the south.
A local Christian, who investigates persecution cases, often in dangerous situations, shares his story.
“I went into Yobe state last December after almost two hundred Christians were killed and 11 churches demolished. A local church leader was very surprised to see me because I came in when everybody else left the region. I could not stay long because the danger had not subsided. I interviewed people about the church bombings and left. Because it is dangerous on the roads after dark, I wanted to stay in a hotel on my way home. Then I heard about rumors that an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria was going to attack that village that very night. So I got back into my car and drove on a road unfamiliar to me. After some time, a Volkswagen Golf appeared behind me. This car is often used by people to carry out attacks. They passed by and tried to make me stop. I had no choice than to overtake them again. I was so afraid. Only after following me dozens of kilometers, they gave up their attempts to make me stop.”
an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria is not the only group attacking Christians. In fact, any mosque could call on their youth to raid a church and kill the people inside. He shares about his own church.
“Muslims came to our church when we were worshipping. They threw with stones and carried sticks. Our young men threw stones back. The Muslims left for a while, but came back with automatic guns. My family, myself and most of the congregation retreated in the pastor’s house. The assaulters fired their guns and threw Molotov-cocktails over the walls. We filled buckets with waters to extinguish the flames. The only thought on my mind was ‘how are we going to survive?’ We were looking for stones everywhere so we could at least defend ourselves. It took the police more than three hours to arrive at the scene and another half hour to get the Muslims to leave. Three people died that day and dozens were injured.”
After the attack, his church decided it needed to respond with love and forgiveness. “That’s what was preached, but not everybody was happy with it. Especially the young people called for revenge. It was difficult to restrain them.”
Other churches in Nigeria struggle with their response as well. The sermon of one Nigerian pastor was recently disturbed when he told the congregation they needed to love Muslims. A young man shouted, “No, we cannot do that!” The pastor invited the man to share why he was so upset and noticed that many church members agreed that they should retaliate. Then he asked him who Jesus was for him.
“Jesus is my Savior and my Lord.” “And what does it mean that He is your Lord,” inquired the pastor. “That I have to surrender my life to Him.” “Do you believe everything that is written in the Bible?” “Yes, I do. Every word.” Then the pastor read to him Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies. The young man was silenced. “I repeated that we have to do what Jesus says despite the circumstances; we need to love our enemies. Maybe one reason why we are under attack is because we haven’t shared Christ with our Muslim neighbors. Evangelizing in the midst of this radicalization is even more difficult than it used to be.”
We try to equip the church to help respond in a biblical way and deal with trauma counseling. “We organize Islamic awareness training to teach people about Islam and how to deal with Muslims,” said a local Christian “We need to remember that Muslims are afraid. They want to earn their ticket into heaven by participating in the jihad. One of the most important biblical concepts that we teach is that we are not fighting against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces. If we die, we go to heaven; but, if a Muslim dies, he goes to a Christ-less eternity. There is only one path to heaven, Jesus, and it is our duty to make that path visible.”
And so the battle for Nigeria’s soul intensifies. Islamic terrorists rely on weapons and fear; Christians need to trust in God’s love and eternal promises. Yes, there is a lot of pain and sadness. Looking into the eyes of widows and orphans is sheer torture, confesses the pastor. “But God has called me and many others to stay here. So we remain and do His work.”
Father, our hearts are filled with sorrow for these believers in Nigeria who suffer for their faith in You. Protect them and help them as they seek to respond in love and prayer for their Muslim attackers. With them we pray for the attackers, that Your mercy and grace might pierce through the hardness of these hearts so opposed to Your name. As You have done with us, take those who are Your enemies and make them sons to praise You. And cause peace to flow over this land. In the name of Jesus who redeems lost souls, Amen.