While much of the Western world focuses on events unfolding in "Arab Spring" nations, battles rage almost daily in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country. The West African nation of 155 million is approximately 50 percent Muslim and 48 percent Christian.
In 1999 Nigeria's 12 northern states declared Islamic sharia law. Despite promises from Islamic officials that this strict code would not be applied to Christians, within a few years the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) denounced trials of Christians by sharia courts. Islam and the forceful implementation of sharia law in these states indeed have added a new dimension of violence that has severely affected the church.
Many Christians have lost their lives in the violent sectarian attacks that foster fear, and in some instances, a desire for retaliation. Christians, whom Islamic law regards as "infidels," are routinely discriminated against, and worse. Christian boys are abducted to be raised as Muslims; Christian girls are kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam and married off to Muslim men. Mob and arson attacks on churches and Christian villages have become increasingly commonplace, forcing congregations to abandon their buildings and Christians to flee their homes.
The Muslim perpetrators are often affiliated with Boko Haram, an Islamist al-Qaida-linked terror group that demands the government establish Sharia throughout Nigeria. Headlines of recent incidents reported by Compass Direct News include "Muslim Extremists from Niger Help Kill Christians in Nigeria" (Aug. 31), "Two Bombs Explode Near Churches in Jos, Nigeria" (Aug. 2) and "Funeral Held for Christians Killed in Suleja, Nigeria, Bombing" (July 25).
A religious fault line runs through volatile Jos, a city of 1 million, the capital of Plateau state and gateway between the predominantly Muslim north and largely Christian south. Many Christian residents hold that Jos stands for "Jesus Our Savior."
But Jos, like much of Nigeria, remains a powder keg. Religious riots erupted in 1999, 2000 and 2001. After years of tense peace with less violence against Christians, riots centered in Jos broke out again in 2008 and 2010 in which thousands of Christians died. Islamists perpetrate small-scale attacks each week. Japheth and his family is one example. Japheth's parents and siblings were murdered last year in a village attack. A Muslim extremist stabbed the baby in the head and buttocks while cradled in his dying mother's arms. Japheth was left for dead. Miraculously, the baby survived. Japheth, now 18 months old, is in good health.
Such depravity may be on the rise because public institutions are becoming increasingly polarized. Survivors report that the Nigerian army helped Islamists slaughter Christians in six Plateau village attacks in August. One Christian woman whose family was killed told Compass she knew some of the uniformed soldiers who participated in the assaults or at least accompanied the perpetrators.
According to reports, the army had sent its Special Task Force unit, designed to stop sectarian attacks, to the area to protect Christians. Plateau Gov. Jonah Jang called for its immediate withdrawal because, he said, Muslims in the army have sided with Islamist assailants.
I find this the most disturbing element. Soldiers and peace officers using their power on behalf of Islamic militants create a particularly difficult situation for the church. Once the government loses its ability to be an unbiased arbiter and protector of Nigerians, the overall situation cannot help but become more volatile.
Potential for civil war remains high. This conflict pitting Christians against Muslims could spread to the surrounding region. Last month mobs of jihadists from neighboring Niger attacked Christian communities in northern Nigeria's Kaduna state. The aspiration of many of these Islamic extremists is to impose Sharia globally.
It's easy to see a modern-day context of Jesus' haunting words in John 16:2: "The time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God." I've seen Christians extend tremendous forgiveness to their Muslim attackers, but as violence worsens and becomes more frequent, the church doesn't always respond as God would want. Revenge is understandable, but it's certainly not God's will.
Why is Nigeria's fate so crucial to the rest of Africa? As home to 60 million Christians, the largest number of Christians in the continent, potential for civil war escalates with each attack. This conflict could spread to the surrounding region and the rest of Africa.
We must support Nigeria's church so it can be a force for prayer, reconciliation and peace. In Nigeria, Open Doors encourages Christians facing persecution and hostility by distributing Bibles and offering biblical training of leaders in ministry skills and Sunday school ministry. Open Doors assists Christians in northern Sharia states to educate their children, provides emergency support in crisis situations and sponsors community development programs. It also promotes reconciliation.
Our agenda must be that of Jesus. We can't be emphasizing the wrongs done to us as Christians. We must embody the reconciliation found for all people in Jesus Christ. The Bible is clear. You can't make someone forgive you, but you can forgive them. Paul writes in Romans 12:18 that “if it is possible as far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone.”
Peace must be the pursuit. There's no exception clause. We must come alongside the deeply wounded church struggling with forgiveness and feelings of hatred. We must help strengthen the church and transform that anger into love-empowered outreach. And we know love can conquer the hatred of our enemies.
The situation remains one of the planet's most tension-filled, intractable, difficult problems based on sheer size and potential for bloodshed. However, hope abides. That hope is resident in the heart of every believer who knows the power of reconciliation found in Jesus Christ.
He is a miracle-working God. The plight of Nigeria's Christians is dire, but I'm not without hope. The situation requires us to get to the heart of the matter where Christian faith and hope meet the Islamic extremists' ideology and zeal. We have to continue to work for the triumph of hope that is found in Christ alone.
Dr. Carl Moeller is president and CEO of Open Doors USA, an affiliate of Open Doors International, a worldwide ministry which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians living in the most dangerous countries around the globe since 1955. For more information, visit www.OpenDoorsUSA.org.
Publication date: September 16, 2011