A NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: Violence against Christians is almost daily.
The June 5 massacre of dozens of innocent Nigerian Catholics at a Pentecost Mass in Owo, Ondo State, in the south west, was an utterly horrific tragedy. Even more tragic is the reality that this was not an isolated event; Violent attacks on Christians are commonplace in Nigeria. Compounding the tragedy is the reality that the rest of the world has mostly ignored the escalating anti-Christian persecution that has plagued Africa’s most populous nation for decades.
Violence against Christians is now daily there. In the past month alone, alongside the devastating Pentecost massacre, reported attacks have included the May 26 kidnapping of two priests in the Diocese of Sokota; the death of another priest who was kidnapped in March; and the murder of a Christian student by a mob of her fellow students.
The perpetrators of attacks on Christians include a number of Islamist groups, including the infamous Boko Haram militants, which have carried out numerous atrocities in northern Nigeria, and the Muslim Fulani militia, which has targeted its victims in a geographic area wider in the country. The violence is not exclusively inspired by anti-Christian antipathies; ethnic, economic and territorial rivalries are also at stake, especially in the case of the Fulani.
But religion remains the driver of violence in Nigeria, whose population of 225 million is almost evenly split between Muslims and Christians. According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and advocacy organization Open Doors’ World Watch List, Nigeria is one of the world’s most egregious offenders of religious persecution.
The consequences for Nigerian Christians have been disastrous. More than 60,000 Christians have been killed in the past two decades, and the death toll has recently risen alarmingly, with a report estimating that more than 3,400 Christians were killed in the first 200 days of 2021.
It is also clear that even though they make up nearly half of their country’s total population, the beleaguered Christian community of the African nation cannot count on help from the current government. President Muhammadu Buhari is an ethnic Fulani himself, and his government’s national security apparatus is dominated by officials whose sympathies seem to lie more with the perpetrators of religious violence than with its victims.
This deplorable failure by public authorities to act on their behalf was pointed out in the June 7 statement by the Diocese of Ondo regarding the Pentecost Sunday massacre at St. Francis Xavier Church in Owo.
Calling for the perpetrators of “this heinous act” to be brought to justice immediately, the statement said: “It is quite disheartening and embarrassing that these needless killings, kidnappings and other atrocities are now being perpetrated with impunity on [a] daily. »
Outside of Nigeria, with the war in Ukraine continuing to dominate international news and so many tragedies occurring closer to home, such as the recent mass shootings in the United States, people have been distracted by the worsening violence in Nigeria and ongoing Christian persecution. the. So what should Catholics in the United States do to communicate their solidarity with our brothers in faith in Nigeria and provide them with concrete support?
According to Catholic religious liberty advocates like Stephen Rasche of the Religious Liberty Institute, immediate action should be to pressure our own national government to reinstate Nigeria’s official designation as a “Country of Particular Concern” in regarding the country’s violation of the religion of its citizens. freedom. Despite the continued rise in violence against Christians and the evident reluctance of the current Nigerian regime to take meaningful steps to stem it, the US State Department decided last November to remove Nigeria from its list of “particularly of concern” that commit the most flagrant violations of religious freedom.
This unexpected action, which runs directly counter to the continued escalation on the ground, has stunned religious liberty advocates. In fact, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan federal panel whose members are appointed by both the White House and Congress, issued a statement saying it was “appalled” by the Department’s action. of state.
This change by the Biden administration regarding Nigeria appears to reflect the tendency of many Western political leaders to downplay violence directed specifically against Christians and refuse to act meaningfully against nations that allow it to occur – even if t is documented that Christians are by far the most common targets of international violations of religious freedom. Whatever the reason, this is a serious State Department error that must be corrected as soon as possible. The administration is also expected to communicate that U.S. development assistance to Nigeria, including the $2.1 billion package announced by Secretary of State Antony Blinken two days after the revocation of Nigeria’s designation as country of particular concern, will only be available on the explicit condition that its national government supports religious freedom and defends its Christian citizens against the continuing epidemic of violence.
We must also continue to offer our prayers for the Christian people of Nigeria and persecuted Christians around the world. In addition, we can also contribute directly to international religious organizations and victim relief efforts. Such help is desperately needed in the wake of attacks such as the Pentecost massacre.
But as we strive to help the beleaguered Catholics of Nigeria, let us also keep in mind that they are doing the same or more for us in return. Despite their endless suffering, their joy and perseverance as followers of Christ are truly remarkable. Undeterred by attacks on their churches, weekly Mass attendance among local Catholics remains above 90%, and vocations to priesthood and religious life continue to grow. These faithful know that heaven exists and, like the first Christian martyrs, they are ready to die for their faith if necessary. We must thank God for their heroic witness and, through him, gain the strength to draw closer to him ourselves.
God bless you!