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January 19, 2012

Nigerian Christians Under High State of Alert

Screen shot 2012-01-19 at 2.09.50 PMNigeria (MNN/ODM) ― Hundreds of Nigerian Christians fled from Yobe State after incessant Boko Haram (a militant Islamist sect demanding the rule of strict Muslim law in Nigeria) attacks took refuge in Jos, the Plateau State capital. Fleeing is a bit like jumping "out of the frying pan into the fire."

Jos also experienced recent violence in which Chrisitans bore the brunt of the attakcs. Carl Moeller, President and CEO of Open Doors USA, says, "The larger population of Jos tends to provide a concept of more security because there is more security and more official response than in the villages."

Many of the refugees are afraid to go back home to Yobe State because of the threat to wipe them out. At the same time, the end of a nation-wide strike over fuel prices came as a relief to the Open Doors team in Nigeria. The five-day strike over the government's decision to cancel fuel subsidies spiraled into violent clashes between demonstrators and police, compounding the situation considerably. 

The Boko Haram's campaign began during the Christmas season and left Northern Nigeria reeling. There are concerns that the violence could tip into civil war. Moeller notes that "nobody wants to use that 'civil war' concept, but I don't know how you can conceive of what is taking place. It's a societal conflict. It's a deeply-held conviction on the part of Boko Haram to wipe Christianity out of the north. We have seen where they are not ashamed also to do attacks in the more southern regions."

However, since the week before Christmas, the attacks have been noticeably on the rise. "As Christian leaders in Nigeria have struggled, what is the Christian response to do? The government seems to be relatively unable to do more than speak words of safety to the Christian community. The actions of Boko Haram, as we've seen, have been more than just words. They've been deadly actions targeted against Christian churches and Christian communities."

The hardest question to answer is: Can believers say that as long as they strive for peace, defending themselves in the midst of this violence is legitimate? Moeller says the teams are praying. "We're continuing to support the church as it calls for calm and government intervention for the protection of Christians. But at the same time, we're recognizing that Christians will need to defend themselves against this violence."

The line between persecution and religicide is getting equally fuzzy. Moeller says Open Doors defines it as when one group of religious zealots and extremists want to wipe out an entire religion in that region. When examining the situation in Nigeria, he notes, "All of those circle around the identity of Boko Haram as an Islamic extremist group and the identity of the victims of their violence as Christians, so it may involve other ethnic issues, and it may involve other tribal issues, but it is, in fact, a religious conflict."

Open Doors workers have been swamped in efforts to confirm and address the most urgent needs of Christian believers who've been caught up in the situation. Boko Haram has vowed to "cleanse the North of Christianity," which has kept the affected areas in the grip of uncertainty. However, Moeller says, "The question is: Will we continue to do what we're doing there? And the answer is: Of course, because the church needs us, and they've asked to stay and to help equip and rebuild these congregations that have been impacted."

This atmosphere of fear and mistrust across the North complicates the work for Open Doors teams, who need much wisdom and discernment in their decision-making process. If staff teams are caught up in the violence themselves, this will complicate urgently-needed assistance even further.

At the end of 2011, some Open Doors training sessions were disrupted by Boko Haram activities. While a training seminar was going on in Maiduguri, 10 bomb explosions occurred in different locations of the city within three days.

Two of the participants in the seminar were gunned down by Boko Haram members after returning home. One of them was a pastor of the local Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) congregation. Despite the great shock to all the participants and the ongoing danger, they persisted to complete the training. In one instance, it was confirmed that the movements of an Open Doors relief team were being monitored by members of Boko Haram. 

The local team has confirmed that more than 50 Christians have been killed in the violence since the beginning of January. In order to contain the violence, the government has set in place dusk-to-dawn curfews in Kaduna, Niger, Kano and Zamfara States, although reportedly these curfews are being relaxed.  

The Open Doors teams ask for concerted prayer as they work to meet the most urgent needs in the face of the remaining uncertainties in Nigeria.

Source: Mission Network News, Open Doors