In a narrative switch, Nigerian leaders now admit that terrorists such as Boko Haram are intentionally attacking Christians. Last week, information minister Alhaji Lai Mohammed offered several reasons jihadists focus persecution efforts on Christians: They’re feeling the heat of increased pressure from Nigeria’s military, they’ve had to resort to “soft targets” such as churches and schools, and they’re bent on a “satanic strategy” of triggering a “religious war” and throwing the nation “into chaos.”
As recently as early February, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari insisted that 90 percent of Boko Haram victims are Muslim. Groups such as the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) strongly disagree, citing the beheading of pastor Lawan Andimi in January, the killing of 11 Nigerian Christians on Christmas, and the two-year captivity of Leah Sharibu, who refuses to renounce her faith.
Yes, Insurgents Are Attacking Christians
Nigeria, which has about a 50-50 split of Christians and Muslims, was recently added to the U.S. State Department’s Special Watch List for violating religious freedom. On its World Watch List of persecuted Christians, Open Doors ranks Nigeria 12th.
Terrorists “have recently changed their strategy in the wake of their ceaseless pounding by the military,” Mohammed says, leading to desperate “guerilla tactics.” Previously, insurgents attacked people of both faiths “without discrimination,” he notes, but now “they have realized how emotive and divisive religion can be, when exploited by unscrupulous persons.”
Calling the jihadists “blood-thirsty, rapacious killers who subscribe to no religion,” Mohammed says they’ve “recently started targeting Christians with a view to sowing the seed of confusion between the two great religions.” Though attacks on Muslims haven’t ceased, he says, insurgents “now have a deliberate policy of attacking Christians.”
Mohammed appeals to religious leaders “not to fall for the antics of Boko Haram and ISWAP (Islamic State of West Africa Province), who are trying to divide us along religious lines.”
Now Take Action, Advocates Urge
John Hayab, a Baptist pastor in Nigeria, tells Christianity Today the government’s admission is “better late than never” but fails to tell the whole story. Terrorists actually want to “eliminate Christianity and stop evangelism,” he says, adding that Nigeria now needs “concrete steps to find solutions.”
Johnnie Moore with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom agrees that terrorists aim “to ethnically cleanse northern Nigeria of its Christians and to kill every Muslim who stands in their way.”
Nigerian President Buhari recently said, “We can never allow the terrorists to divide us—Christian against Muslim, Muslim against Christian. We are all sons of Abraham. And all Nigerians have the same worth and rights before the law, and before God.”
Although religion is key to the upheaval in Nigeria, it’s not the only factor. Throughout the Sahel region of West Africa, political instability and economic hardship run rampant. Because of severe drought likely caused by climate change, many residents struggle with day-to-day survival. President Trump recently placed Nigeria on a “travel ban” list, yet he reportedly remains popular among its citizens.