Nigeria: Military Rule, Religious Fanaticism and Persecution

More than five years ago, the Times newspaper published an editorial entitled ‘Spectators at the Carnage’. 

Persecution on the grounds of religious faith is a global phenomenon and is growing in scale and intensity. Reports including that of the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on ‘Freedom of Religion or Belief’ (FoRB) warn that religious persecution is increasing, and an “ever-growing threat”.Based on reports from various NGOs, it is estimated that about one third of the world’s population suffers from religious persecution in some form, with Christians being the most persecuted group.

 This is despite the fact that freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental right of every person. This includes the freedom to change or reject one’s own belief system. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in Article 18 defines religious human rights thus:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance. (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

“Across the globe, in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, Christians are being bullied, arrested, jailed, expelled and executed. Christianity is by most calculations the most persecuted religion of modern times. Yet Western politicians until now have been reluctant to speak out in support of Christians in peril… The West must be ready to support the Christian faith. That, rather than embarrassment, has to be the starting point of our necessary conversations with…. followers of other faiths.’ And it concluded, ‘We cannot be spectators at this carnage.’[i]

In my brief presentation, I am going to focus particularly on the suffering of Christians in Nigeria. Open Doors produce an annual World Watch Listof the top 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution. This year, Nigeria is listed 12th.

The population of Nigeria is just over 200 million. A Pew study in 2011 calculated that Christians formed 56.8% of the population in Nigeria, while Muslims comprised 41.1%. 

The majority of Christians live in the south of the country where their religious freedom is respected. Twelve of the northern states have imposed Sharia law. As a minority, Christians face discriminationand restrictions in accessing community resources, such as clean water, health clinics and higher education, and on occasions extreme violence. As a consequence, thousands of Christians have fled north-east Nigeria and are living in often terrible conditions in neighbouring countries or in camps within Nigeria itself. 

Why are Christians persecuted in Nigeria?

The 2019, US Commission on International Religious freedom report explains,

“Given the myriad ways that religious, ethnic and tribal identities are intertwined, it can be difficult to determine the basis or catalyst for violence: Violence stemming from disputes over land or water, for example, can become immersed in and exacerbate religious differences. Similarly, clashes between farmer and herder communities can also take place across – or be perceived to be due to – religious and ethnic divides, as herders are primarily Muslim, and farmers Christian.”[ii]

The primary cause of the persecution has been the actions of the militant group Boko Haram who have abducted and killed those who refuse to conform to their extremist brand of Islam. 

According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker, since 2011, an estimated 37,500 people have died as a result of Boko Haram violence and 2.4 million people have been displaced. The UN recently stated that since 2009, an estimated 8,000 children have been abducted by Boko Haram. According to a UNICEF report, at least 117 of these children have been used as suicide bombers since 2017—and more than 80 percent of them were girls.[iii]

The name, Boko Haram, means “Western education is forbidden.” The Islamic extremist group rose up to fight the influence of the West—which includes the teachings of Christianity. A statement from Boko Haram in August 2016 declared the group would focus on “blowing up every church that we are able to reach and killing all of those who we find from the citizens of the cross”.
Boko Haram has waged a war against believers in north-east Nigeria, torching villages and churches, abducting Christian women and girls for forced marriage to jihadists, and slaughtering believers. Their aim has been to establish an Islamic caliphate, similar to that declared by Islamic State in Iraq in 2014, to whom Boko Haram had pledged allegiance.While the Nigerian army has had some success in tackling Boko Haram, most of the recent killings have been carried out by Hausa-Fulani herdsmen, a radical Islamic tribe that frequently targets Christian communities. Attacks by Fulani herdsmen have claimed the lives of hundreds of Christians, and scores of villages and churches have been burned to the ground.  Attacks aimed at forcing Christians from their land have escalated, with the government perceived to be rewarding their violence by proposing a bill protecting Fulani grazing rights. Here are just three recent examples:

On April 24, 2018, Fulani herdsmen attacked a Catholic church in Benue State during a morning service, killing two priests and 17 parishioners. After the “shooting rampage,” the attackers “descended on the community and razed over 60 houses, farmland, food barns, after carting away what the people had in their barns.”[iv]

On 14 February 2019, in a dawn attack on Karamai, 41 people died when about 300 gunmen attacked the village and ransacked homes. Almost all the dead were women and children, apart from a few elderly and blind men who were unable to flee.

On 11 March 2019, 71 people were killed and 28 injured in a Fulani militia attack in Dogon Noma village, Kaduna State. According to eyewitness accounts, the gunmen were “torching houses, shooting and hacking down anything that moved”. Some 100 houses were destroyed in the attack.[v]
During Nigeria’s recent election President Buhari, who was re-elected, campaigned on the promise to “bring permanent peace and solution” to the north east and other regions of “insurgency”, specifically mentioning Plateau, Benue and Kaduna States. 

A Nigerian Christian Response

Christian leaders in Nigeria have also repeatedly called on the President, who is himself a Fulani Muslim, to take decisive action against the scourge of attacks by Fulani herdsmen on Christian farming communities. The Most Revd Benjamin Kwashi is the Archbishop of Jos, Nigeria. In his new book, Neither Bomb Nor Bullet, Dr Kwashi alleges: 

“In northern Nigeria, if you are a Muslim and you kill a Christian, you’re most likely to go free. You can get away with murder — literally. There is a culture of impunity in Nigeria, and the government is either powerless or lacks the will to prevent the killing.” 

 “I believe that the current system of governance in Nigeria gives Christians no hope beyond their trust in God. . .“When the government fails to protect its citizens, it is, in effect, licensing untrained vigilantes to carry out extrajudicial justice, while the lawmakers, the military, and the police look on. This is what has happened in Nigeria.”

“The effect of this is that children, old people, women, and unarmed civilians are being hacked to pieces in their beds. By refusing to restrain murderers, the government is forcing people to rise to defend themselves.”

 “If you look at the people who are being killed, these are people who have never done anything on earth, they’ve just wanted to live and eat.”

 “We live with that fear every day, but we don’t let it control our lives. We are aware it could happen at any time.”[vi]

In July 2019, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Commissioned Review of the Persecution of Christians was published. The then Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, accepted all of the recommendations on behalf of the UK Government and the Review received full support in a House of Commons debate. 

In an Afterword, the Report concludes:

“Perhaps the most dystopian aspect of George Orwell’s 1984 is the existence of the ‘Thought Police’ and the possibility of prosecution for ‘thought crime’. The freedom to think for oneself and to choose to believe what one chooses to believe, without fear of coercion, is the most fundamental human right, and is indeed the one on which so many others depend: because if one is not free to think or believe how can one order one’s life in any other way one chooses? And yet everywhere in our world today we see this right questioned, compromised and threatened. It is a grave threat which must be resisted – both because it is an evil in itself, and because it threatens so much else. It is on the basis of that conviction that these recommendations have been formulated. And those who find these recommendations unpalatable should simply ask themselves this question: what exactly would the consequences of inaction be? And how grave does this situation have to become before we act?” 

Without being too pessimistic, there is now some uncertainty whether the recommendations of the report will ever be implemented, since Jeremy Hunt is no longer Foreign Secretary. Boris Johnson, said – before his installation as Prime Minister,

“I welcome the @ForeignOffice review into the persecution of Christians abroad. If I am fortunate enough to become PM, I will always prioritise protecting religious freedoms and stand up for those facing persecution”.

Fine words but I suggest Brexit is a far more pressing concern to the government. In the meantime, Nigeria continues to be plagued by a highly explosive mixture of “terrorism and ethno-religious violence.” And there are increasing warnings of an impending genocide.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9). We clearly need more children of God, not least in Nigeria.

A presentation given at Open Discussions in association with the Gulf Cultural Club, Abrar House, Edgware, London, in August 2019.


Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO Support for Persecuted Christians.

“Spectators at the Carnage,” The Times, 31 May 2014,

“Nigerian Mass Becomes a Massacre: Herdsmen Kill 18 Worshipers, Adding to Hundreds of Victims”, Kate Shellnut, Christianity Today, 25 April 2018,

“120 Nigerian Christians killed leaving funeral”, Diana Chandler, Baptist Press, 27 June 2018,

‘Culture of impunity’ over violence in Nigeria, says Archbishop of Jos.” Adam Becket, Church Times, 19 July 2019,

“Kidnaps and killings, Nigerian-style” Lela Gilbert, Jerusalem Post, 6 July 2019,

Russell Blacker: “The Caucus for the Persecuted Church” July 2019

Benjamin Kwashi, Neither Bomb Nor Bullet, Hudson Lion, 2019

“Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population” (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 July 2013. 

“Future of the World Muslim Population” (web). 27 January 2011. 

Open Doors

Barnabas Fund