Christians in Jos, Nigeria Fear Further Attacks

Churches burned following assault on Catholic church in volatile Plateau state.

LAGOS, Nigeria, January 19 (CDN) — Gunshots and smoke continued to alarm residents of Jos in central Nigeria today, with the Christian community fearing further violence from Muslim youths who on Sunday (Jan. 17) attacked a Catholic church and burned down several other church buildings.

A 24-hour curfew imposed yesterday in Jos and the suburb of Bukuru by the Plateau state government was extended through Wednesday. Police said continuing violence was initially triggered by Sunday’s unprovoked attack by Muslim youths on worshippers at the St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Nasarawa Gwong, in the Jos North Local Government Area.

Also burned were buildings of the Christ Apostolic Church, Assemblies of God Church, three branches of the Church of Christ in Nigeria and two buildings of the Evangelical Church of West Africa, Christian leaders said.

The number of casualties continued to grow, reportedly reaching more than 100 as security forces tried to rein in rioters, with both Christian and Muslim groups still counting their losses. Hundreds have reportedly been wounded.

“We have been witnessing sporadic shootings in the last two days,” said the Rev. Chuwang Avou, secretary of the state chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria. “We see some residents shooting sporadically into the air. We have also seen individuals with machine guns on parade in the state.”

Avou said many of those who are shooting are civilians, not policemen, and that they have been mounting road blocks and causing chaos in the area. At least 35 people have been arrested.

“What we have witnessed only goes to show that the problem in the state is far from over,” he said. “Many families have been displaced. There are a number who are receiving treatment in the hospital. The dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed in the state has not solved any problem, as there is still tension in the land.”

Avou said the crisis broke out when Muslim youths pursued a woman into a church during worship on Sunday, wreaking havoc on the service.

“Some Muslim youths invaded some churches and started burning and destroying properties,” he said. “We were told that the youths pursued a lady to the church. Nobody knew what the lady did. What we just discovered was that the entire atmosphere was ignited and houses were being burned.”

A Muslim group in the area, however, dismissed claims that Muslim youths ignited the tensions. They accused Christian youths of stopping a Muslim from rebuilding his house.

State Commissioner of Police Greg Anyating stated that Muslim youths were to blame for setting off the violence.

As violence continued today, there was a mass movement of Christians and Muslims from areas where rampaging youths were unleashing mayhem on the city despite heavy security. The Nigerian army was reportedly summoned to try to restore order.

The Rev. Ignatius Kaigama, co-chairman of the state Inter-Religious Council and Catholic Archbishop of Jos, condemned the recurring civil disturbances in the state and called on all to “sheath their swords and be their brothers’ keepers.”

The secretary of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, Pastor Wale Adefarasin, said attacks on Christians are a manifestation of terrorism in the country.

“What we should realize is that the government is not helping situations,” he said. “It is an illusion that Nigeria is safe.”

He added that terrorism affects both Christians and Muslims negatively, and that it is the duty of elected officials to ensure that terrorists are detected early and deterred.

“The Muslim fundamentalists want to take over Jos by all means,” Pastor Adefarasin said. “They claim that Jos is a Muslim state, which is not true.”

Violence hit the same area on Nov. 28-29, 2008, when murderous rioting sparked by Muslim attacks on Christians and their property left six pastors dead, at least 500 other people killed and 40 churches destroyed, according to church leaders. More than 25,000 persons were displaced in the two days of violence.

What began as outrage over suspected vote fraud in local elections quickly hit the religious fault line as angry Muslims took aim at Christian sites rather than at political targets. Police and troops reportedly killed about 400 rampaging Muslims in an effort to quell the unrest, and Islamists shot, slashed or stabbed to death more than 100 Christians.

The violence comes at a time of a leadership vacuum in Nigeria, with illness requiring Muslim President Umaru Yar’Adua to leave the country on Nov. 23 to seek treatment in Saudi Arabia.

Sectarian violence in Jos, a volatile mid-point where the predominantly Muslim north meets the mainly Christian south, left more than 1,000 people dead in 2001. Another 700 people were killed in sectarian outbreaks of violence in 2004. Located in Nigeria’s central region between the Muslim-majority north and the largely Christian south, Plateau state is home to various Christian ethnic groups co-existing uneasily with Muslim Hausa settlers. 

Report from Compass Direct News 


12 Christians killed, 20 churches burned in Borno rioting prompted by extremist group.

LAGOS, Nigeria, Aug. 7 (Compass Direct News) – With 12 Christians, including three pastors, confirmed killed in rioting ignited by an Islamic sect opposed to Western education, the Christian community in northern Nigeria’s Borno state is still counting its losses.

The rioting instigated by an Islamic extremist sect known as Boko Haram, which initially attacked police and government bases, left hundreds of people dead and large property losses. Sharia (Islamic law) is already in force for Muslims in 12 northern states, but the sect is fighting to have it enforced more broadly in those states and to impose it throughout Nigeria.

“We are still taking inventory of how the crisis affected our members, but so far we have confirmed some of the Christians killed and churches burnt,” Samuel Salifu, national secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), told Compass.

Rampaging members of the sect burned 20 churches before police captured and killed Boko Haram’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf. Police say Yusuf was killed “while trying to escape,” but a federal government panel is investigating allegations that security agents executed him after arresting him alive in his hideout.

The chairman of the Borno state chapter of CAN, the Rev. Yuguda Zubabai Ndurvuwa, said many Christians abducted by Boko Haram extremists were yet to be found. He noted that the Christian community usually has been hardest hit in religious uprisings in Borno and other northern states. Violence started on July 26, when armed sect members attacked a police station in Bauchi state that set off a firestorm of violence that spread to the northern states of Borno, Kano and Yobe.

Those killed in Borno include Pastor Sabo Yakubu of Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN), the Rev. Sylvester Akpan of National Evangelical Mission and the Rev. George Orji of Good News of Christ Church International, Inc.

Church buildings burned in Borno include five branches of the COCIN denomination, two Catholic churches, two Deeper Life Church buildings, two EYN (Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) buildings, and buildings of the National Evangelical Mission, Celestial Church of Christ, Elijah Apostolic Church, The Lord’s Chosen Charismatic Revival Ministries, Assemblies of God Church, Redeemed Christian Church of God, Christ for All Nations, Baptist Church and Anglican Church, all in different parts of the state.

Nigeria has almost equal numbers of Christians and Muslims, with the north dominated by Muslims and the south largely Christian. Northern Nigeria has a history of religious crisis with heavy casualties among Christians.

A Maiduguri, Borno-based journalist, Abiodun Joseph, said members of the sect kidnapped his two sons after he and his family narrowly escaped being lynched by the sect members.

“They stopped us while leaving the estate where I live, which is close to their headquarters, and threatened to shoot myself and my wife if we resisted the abduction of my two sons,” Joseph told Compass. He found his sons two days later.

“It was a very harrowing experience as we were not sure what would happen to them, but we thank God that they were not killed like others,” Joseph added.

Many other abducted Christians, he said, were killed by rioters for refusing to renounce their faith.

Facing Loss

With calm restored, Pastor Enouch Atiyaye, chaplain of the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital, said Christians in Borno who were forced to abandon their homes have been returning to “face the loss of their family members and the burning of their churches and homes.”

“There is a general feeling of despair and dejection among Christians with a high degree of uncertainty, since we don’t know what can happen next,” Atiyaye told Compass. “The fear is that the Boko Haram group has many members who have entrenched themselves in the state over the years. They disappeared during the crisis and can regroup to fight back if necessary security measures are not in place.”

Based on the attack on Christians during the Boko Haram uprising and past experiences, CAN’s Salifu said the association has lost confidence in the ability of the government to provide security for the lives and property of its members.

“If the government continues the way it has been doing, the association would have to give conditions for the co-existence of the various groups in the country” Salifu said at a press conference in Abuja, the country’s capital, on Monday (Aug. 3).

Accusing Borno Gov. Ali Modu Sheriff of complicity in the emergence of the Boko Haram group, Salifu said Christians were apprehensive that there are dangers beyond what was apparent in the sect’s uprising.

“We have no doubt in our minds that they would have perceived Christianity as a Western religion, which to them is also haraam [sin] which must also be eradicated,” he said.

At the press conference the Rev. Ladi Thompson, international coordinator of Macedonian Initiatives, a Christian Non-Governmental Organization, accused the government of ignoring warnings by Christian leaders on Boko Haram activities, which he said could have been nipped much earlier.

The governor’s press director, Usman Ciroma, dismissed CAN’s claim of complicity by Gov. Sheriff, saying that it was preposterous and laughable that the tragedy that befell the state could be trivialized in that way.

“Which politician will be so suicidal as to set a group to kill his own people?” Ciroma reportedly said.

The governor, who denied any relationship with the Islamic sect, met with Christian leaders in Borno state for the first time on Wednesday (Aug. 5), during which he disclosed plans to regulate preaching by religious leaders. For two years, according to news reports, attempts by Christian leaders to meet the governor over the plight of Christians in the state had been rebuffed.

“Government officials at the meeting tried to claim that Muslims were not more affected by the crisis, but the there is no indication that any mosque was burnt or any imam killed,” said a Christian leader at the meeting who requested anonymity.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Churches ordered to cease services, stop meeting in ‘unauthorized’ venues.

DUBLIN, January 21 (Compass Direct News) – Burmese authorities last week increased restrictions on Christian activity in the capital city of Rangoon and surrounding areas, including the closure of several churches, Compass sources confirmed yesterday.

Orders issued on Jan. 5 had already forced many Christians meeting in residential homes or apartments to cease gathering for worship. Officials last week ordered several major Rangoon churches, including Wather Hope Church, Emmanuel Church and the Assemblies of God Church, to cease holding services and continued enforcing the Jan. 5 ban on meetings held in unauthorized facilities.

In the late 1990s authorities stopped issuing permits for land purchase or the construction of new churches, leading many Burmese Christians to conduct services in rented apartments or office buildings, according to the Burmese news agency Mizzima.

The Kyauktada Township Peace and Development Council on Jan. 5 invited pastors from more than 100 Rangoon churches to a meeting where they were told to sign documents pledging to cease operation of their churches. About 50 pastors attended, according to Mizzima.

The documents threatened punishment, including potential jail terms and the sealing of church facilities, for pastors who refused to obey the closure orders.

Another local online news source, the Democratic Voice of Burma, claimed officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs had summoned the owners of buildings where churches met and ordered them not to rent their properties to religious groups.

Mizzima quoted an unnamed Burmese Christian who claimed that 80 percent of churches in Rangoon were affected by the order.


History of Religious Repression

Some local Christians and international observers say the crackdown is related to Christian involvement in relief efforts for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma in May 2008.

Despite widespread devastation and loss of life, Burma’s reclusive government initially banned foreign aid but finally accepted it on condition that Burmese officials would distribute it. Christians, however, had responded immediately to the crisis, gathering relief supplies and transporting them to the Irrawaddy Delta region. Police or army officials stopped some groups, but many were allowed to proceed. At least one such group told Compass that officials likely feared the conversion of Buddhists who accepted aid from Christians.

The military junta ruling Burma promotes Buddhism at the expense of other minority religions, according to Paul A. Marshall’s 2008 Religious Freedom in the World. The country’s population is 82 percent Buddhist, 9 percent Christian and 4 percent Muslim, with traditional ethnic, Chinese and Hindu religions accounting for the rest.

The church closure orders may simply be an extension of Burma’s existing religious policies, which elevate Buddhism in an effort to solidify national identity. Burma ranks high on lists of religious and human rights violators at several watch organizations, including the U.S. State Department, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Open Doors.

Documents declaring the government’s intention to “stamp out” Christianity have circulated for some time. Rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide drew attention to one such document in a 2007 report entitled, “Carrying the Cross: The military regime’s campaign of restriction, discrimination and persecution against Christians in Burma.” The report summarized a 17-point document allegedly produced by an organization affiliated with the Ministry of Religious Affairs entitled, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma.”

The first point in this document declared that, “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced.”

A military dictatorship has ruled Burma since 1962. Following the takeover, the government renamed Burma as the Union of Myanmar and the capital city as Yangon, but many news agencies and government bodies continue to use the original names. When elections were held in 1988, with the opposing National League for Democracy clearly in the majority, the generals rejected the popular vote and used brute military force to cement their power throughout Burma. A similar show of force met hundreds of Buddhist monks who initiated mass anti-government protest rallies on the streets of Rangoon in September 2007.

While almost all Burmese citizens suffer under the regime, Christians are often singled out for specific attack or repression because of their perceived connections with the West.

Reports from various mission groups suggest Christianity is flourishing under the regime, but believers must be creative with their worship – particularly in rural areas. In reports confirmed by Compass, Christians in one state began photocopying Bibles to overcome restrictions on religious publications. Others baptized new Christians during the annual water festival, where citizens douse each other with buckets of water, ceremonially washing away the “sins” of the past year.


Heightened Security, Control

Rangoon residents say a much heavier security presence has been evident in the city since early January, when political activists began distributing anti-government leaflets, The Irrawaddy newspaper reported on Jan. 13. The leaflet drops may have contributed to the current crackdown on church gatherings, as generals suspect all organized groups of having a political agenda.

At a graduation of military students in Rangoon on Jan. 9, Vice-Senior Gen. Maung Aye, who is commander-in-chief of the army and deputy commander-in-chief of Defense Services, warned students to steadfastly uphold the country’s “Three Main National Causes” to prevent “recurrences of past bitter experiences.” The causes were listed as non-disintegration of the Union of Myanmar, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty.

The New Light of Myanmar, a government newspaper, reported the general as saying that, “You will have learned bitter lessons from a number of world events, in which certain States have become weaker … owing to external intervention in their conflicts.”  

Report from Compass Direct News