Worshipping under threat of bomb and bullet
Communal violence is not new to Nigeria. In spite of this, the church has continued to grow — to 51.3 per cent of the population, according to Operation World.
But, for several years now, Nigeria has been facing a new and growing threat from an extreme Muslim group known as Boko Haram. This group has a strong political agenda, feeding off discontent towards the federal government.
This discontent is felt all the more in northern Nigeria because the Federal Government of Nigeria is now headed by a southern Christian, President Goodluck Jonathan.
The name ‘Boko Haram’ roughly translates as ‘Western Education is condemned’. The sect is against all Western influences, but its real target is Christianity.
Christian missions were the agencies that first brought schools to northern Nigeria. More moderate older Muslims, knowing that they themselves benefitted from mission schools, are prepared for peaceful coexistence. But many young educated Muslims have been radicalised and aim for nothing less than a Sharia state.
They are prepared to kill whoever stands in their way, whether Muslim or Christian. It is worrying that significant numbers are prepared to make themselves available for suicide missions.
A Nigerian newspaper (The Tribune) recently put its finger on another reason why the militant jihadist attacks on the churches have intensified: ‘The increasing presence of Christianity in core northern states with many churches being built and conversion of Muslims going at a rapid rate’.
The official name of Boko Haram is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means ‘People committed to the propagation of the prophet’s teachings and jihad’.
At first they were based in the north eastern city of Maidugari, but in recent months have continued to extend their reach across northern Nigeria. They have international connections with other Islamist movements, including Islamic Maghreb, Al-Shabaab (based in Somalia and now attacking churches in Kenya) and Al-Qaeda.
After taking our young family from Belfast to Nigeria in 1987, God opened doors to work with several theological colleges and a literature ministry providing sound theological books that are evangelical, appropriate and affordable to Nigerians.
We are thankful that this ministry, Africa Christian Textbooks (ACTS), has grown in strength, with twelve fully fledged bookshops in Nigeria and Kenya. Two years ago we returned to Belfast because of my mother’s health. But I keep in daily contact with Nigeria and return regularly to encourage God’s servants there.
In March I visited the church in Jos where I served as associate pastor for eight years. The Lord has blessed the Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) from its beginnings in 1904 through the ministry of SUM (now in partnership with Pioneers).
The COCIN HQ Church has expanded its building from holding 1000 to 4000. But on Sunday morning 26 February it was attacked by a suicide bomber. Four people were killed and many others injured.
A mob of nominal Christians gathered with revenge on their minds, but God gave wisdom and grace to the president of COCIN, Rev. Dr Soja Bewarang, so that they listened to his plea for restraint.
Many other attacks have followed in Damaturu, Potiskum, Kano, Jos, Zaria and Kaduna. Many denominations have been affected, including the SIM-related church known as ECWA (Evangelical Church Winning All). Every Sunday now, Christians are bracing themselves for more attacks.
When I visited in March, I went in some trepidation to be with the COCIN HQ folks in their three morning services. Apart from the few who live close to the church, most members face delays as they pass through long tailbacks at army checkpoints and then road blocks manned by uniformed members of youth organisations. They are still forced to park at a distance from the church.
The pastors (who are my former students) and the congregation gave me a warm welcome, encouraged to hear that many Christians in the UK pray for them. They continue to be courageous in faith, encouraged by higher attendances and thankful for God’s mercy in sparing so many that Sunday morning.
It is hard to go to church when you don’t know if it might be attacked by a suicide bomber or a squad of terrorists with grenades and machine guns. As our friend Rt Rev. Ben Kwashi, the Anglican archbishop of Jos, put it recently: ‘It is most disheartening to start thinking of worship on Sunday and my first thoughts are about self-security and self-preservation before worship . . . I can’t help my tears’.
But in spite of their fears and tears Nigerian Christians are still flocking to church. One sister, responding to the Kwashi comment, observed that, ‘Whether the devil likes it or not, we will never forsake the assembly of the brethren. Some say you can sit at home and worship, but I know there is power in corporate worship. God is in charge and it is well with us’.
The patience of the Christian community in Nigeria is running out. The population takes the name Christian, but half may not attend church; and, of those who do attend, less than half will hear the biblical gospel; and, of those who hear the gospel, many are yet to yield their lives fully to the Saviour.
While we rejoice over those who know and love the Lord, Nigeria is no exception in having many nominal Christians. So it is not surprising that acts of random retaliation by Christian youths have increased in both Jos and Kaduna.
The tactic of Boko Haram appears to be to push Nigeria into a cruel civil war that would be fought along deep tribal as well as religious fault lines. This would not be good for the name of Christ, nor for the many Christians who live as quiet but vulnerable minorities in Muslim areas.
Some Nigerian Christian leaders are getting involved in peace-making activities and several missionaries are making a contribution through their wider experience of bridge-building. This involves meetings for church and community leaders (on both sides), football games for young people, debates and other cross-community efforts.
There are signs that some progress is being made. Prayer and patient effort will be needed for the deep divisions to be healed and trust to be restored in communities and even within the security forces.
The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe wisely observed that, ‘The problem of Nigeria is the problem of leadership’. Many are questioning whether President Goodluck Jonathan has the resolve or strength to break corruption in his country.
The culture of corruption is widespread in Nigeria. Even the large amounts now being spent on security are not well accounted for. A small elite are robbing Nigeria’s considerable (oil) wealth for their own personal gain, and it will need courageous leadership from the top to bring change.
There are faithful Christians who seek to let their light shine. But, until they get support from the top, the sufferings of the population will continue and discontent on all sides will grow.
Archbishop Ben Kwashi is a personal friend and a graduate of TCNN (where I taught for 20 years). He has spoken regularly in churches and conventions in the UK and is one of the main speakers at this year’s Bangor Worldwide Missionary Convention.
He has been outspoken in the dispute with Lambeth over the toleration of homosexual clergy within the Anglican Communion. His own house was burned by Muslim rioters when he was pastoring in Zaria in 1987.
He posted this recently on Facebook: ‘We must hate the killings, but pray for the killers, love them and seek their healing, restoration and repentance.
‘Just before we totally condemn Boko Haram, let us ponder over those “fake drug” factories who … are still killing; think about professors, parents and teachers who charge and pay for admissions, exam, degrees and favours.
‘What about the mindless selfishness … the primitive accumulation of wealth by a few regional bigots, the hijacked political processes at all levels, the God-forbidden display of corruption in governance, judiciary, business, construction, management and industry; the evil neglect of the future of younger generations in private and public planning … Are these not killers?
‘While I am mourning for the victims of Boko Haram, I am also mourning those dying of poverty, pollution, poor medical care-giving and the sheer wickedness perpetrated against orphans, widows and the less privileged all over the place’.
The revenge attacks by some nominal Christians demonstrate the need for revival. Yes, the church has grown, but it needs solid biblical teaching and training in discipleship. Some have come to Christ out of wrong motives, seeking the worldly success offered by American and Nigerian preachers of the false health and wealth gospel.
In the 1920s, and again in the 1970s after the Nigerian civil war, God graciously granted significant outbursts of revival in Nigeria. We need prayer that the Holy Spirit will work as he did then to create conviction of sin, repentance and long-term commitment to evangelism and mission.
Theological education and missionary training continues apace. New books are being published that speak to the issues of the day, including the recent book by Nigerian author Femi Adeleye, Preachers of a different gospel (ACTS and Zondervan).
Pastors have suffered greatly in recent years, with several being murdered and others losing everything. Though expatriate missionaries have not yet been directly attacked, several US-based missionary societies have decided to pull their personnel out of Nigeria. Others, I think rightly, believe that the work of mission must continue while the door is still open.
We in Mission Africa (Qua Iboe Fellowship) are grateful to be able to send three new missionary families, as well as short term individuals and teams. For example, Fraser Jackson (from Highland Theological College, Dingwall), and his wife Dawn and their two children, are currently raising support to work with the Theological College of North Nigeria (TCNN) and ACTS.
We believe it is strategic to resource theological colleges and also encourage their lecturers through our Theological Education in Africa conferences. The translation of the Bible into Nigerian languages is continuing.
Recently, ACTS embarked on the translation of the Africa Bible Commentary into Hausa, a language spoken by more than 60 million people, at least 20 million of whom are part of the Christian community. The door is still open and God is still on the throne.
Rev. Dr Sid Garland is a minister of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, missionary with Mission Africa (Qua Iboe Fellowship) and director of Africa Christian Textbooks.