St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo town, Ondo State, southwest Nigeria (Photo by AFP)

Christians are under attack in Nigeria

The UK has turned a blind eye to persecution for far too long

Artillery Row

On 5 June, a Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo State, Nigeria was stormed by militant attackers, leaving at least 50 dead. Churchgoers were congregating for Sunday worship to celebrate the holy feast of Pentecost. The men, women and children slaughtered while peacefully attending church services were victims of a targeted attack on Christians.

Videos of the carnage spread quickly throughout social media, and eventually to international news outlets. The horror could not be ignored. The Ondo State governor called it a “black Sunday”. Pope Francis called the attack “unspeakable violence” and prayed “for the conversion of those blinded by hatred and violence”. Ebenezer Obadare, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., said, “whoever orchestrated this wanted to send a religious message.” The attackers have yet to be identified.

Nigeria has been plagued by religiously-motivated violence for over a decade. Many are familiar with the terrorist group Boko Haram and its off-shoot, the Islamic State-West Africa Province. They have created chaos across northeastern Nigeria for years, killing thousands and leaving many more displaced. ISWAP still has not released Leah Sharibu, the Christian girl who was abducted in 2018 and never released because she refused to abandon her Christian faith.

More recently, the Middle Belt region has seen increasing attacks against Christians by militants associated with Muslim Fulani herders, and the Northwest has seen kidnapping for ransom spiral out of control. Entire schools have been taken captive, and priests kidnapped and killed. At least 4,650 Christians were killed because of their faith in 2021.

A Nigerian college student was stoned by her classmates

Certainly many factors contribute to the massive insecurity plaguing Nigeria. But the most recent spate of high-profile attacks makes clear that Christians are being targeted. The Nigerian government is caught in the violent whirlwind created by years of granting impunity to attackers.

A Nigerian college student named Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu recently was stoned, beaten to death and burnt by her classmates in Sokoto for the baseless “crime” of blasphemy. Videos of this atrocity triggered international outrage, in addition to protests supporting what had happened. Radicalised Muslims increased threats on the Christian population in Northern Nigeria as well. 

Yet most of Deborah Emmanuel’s attackers have not been caught, and the Nigerian Bar Association has criticised the charges of “inciting a disturbance” brought against two of her attackers as not reflecting “the gravity of the situation”.

Whenever high-profile attacks occur in Nigeria, leading politicians are often quick to condemn them and call for prosecutions. But very few attackers are ever found, much less prosecuted. Within a few days, the news moves on. The impunity never ends. 

What will it take for the violence to end in a country where a dozen states allow for the death penalty for blasphemy under Sharia law, in direct contravention of both the Nigerian Constitution and international law? Why should the attacks end when the government seems deeply incurious about investigating the identity of attackers? All compounded by the fact that the government does little to keep terrorists from crossing the borders into Nigeria.

Nigerians have grown tired from the lack of action from their government. But the international community is doing little to keep the Nigerian government accountable. At the EU, parliamentarians failed to condemn the murder of Deborah Emmanuel. In the U.S., the government removed Nigeria in 2021 from its list of the worst violators of freedom of religion in the world with no explanation whatsoever, bringing outcry from the CSO community.

In the meantime, according to Open Doors, more Christians are being killed in Nigeria than in the rest of the world combined.

Politicians have blamed climate change for attacks in Nigeria

The UK as well has been slow to acknowledge the carnage affecting Christians in Nigeria. This is despite the UK producing some of the best reporting on the violations of religious freedom taking place in Nigeria. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion of Belief in 2020 released a landmark report raising the question of genocide against Christians and other religious minorities in northern Nigeria. The Bishop of Truro’s 2019 report on Christian persecution identified Nigeria as a country where Christians “have suffered some of the worst atrocities inflicted on Churchgoers anywhere in the world”. Yet still, the UK government says it does not believe religion is a “driver” of violence in Nigeria apart from terrorism in the Northeast.

After the Pentecost massacre, the UK government was asked how it was using the £250 million a year in foreign aid to Nigeria to “pressure the Nigerian Government to do all they can to protect Christians and other minorities”. In response, the government referred to how the aid was spent on climate change. Over the weekend, in light of other politicians blaming climate change for attacks in Nigeria, Catholic Bishop of Ondo Jude Ayodeji Arogundade stated, “to suggest or make a connection between victims of terror and consequences of climate change is not only misleading but also exactly rubbing salt to the injuries of all who have suffered terrorism in Nigeria.” 

In light of the Pentecost attack in Owo, and the lynching of Deborah Emmanuel, the UK government’s assessment must change. Some UK ministers have come out with strong condemnations of the Pentecost attack. This summer, the UK will host the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, where the government should recognize the persecution against Christians and other religious minorities in Nigeria, and that the Nigerian government is complicit in their treatment.

The UK should lead and provide an example to the rest of the world that it will take a stand for freedom of religion or belief, rather than turn a blind eye. The cost of inaction has rarely been so high.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover