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Amid priest abductions, Nigerian bishops insist Christian persecution has religious roots

Nigerian bishops have pushed back on remarks from an Irish politician which seemed to emphasize climate change as the cause of violence in the country, without recognition of the particularly religious nature of terrorist attacks.

And a rising number of priests kidnapped and killed in the country suggests the religious character of Christian persecution in the African nation.

May be an image of 2 people and people standing
Bishop Jude Ayodeji Arogundade. Credit: Diocese of Ondo.

Irish President Michael Higgins came under fire last month for linking to climate change the killing of more than 40 parishioners at St. Francis Church in Owo, in the southwestern Nigerian state of Ondo.

In a condolence message issued after the June 5 massacre Higgins said it was wrong to “scapegoat [for the killing] pastoral peoples, who are among the foremost victims of the consequences of climate change.”

Food security issues in Africa, caused by climate change, “have brought us to a point of crisis that is now having internal and regional effects based on struggles, ways of life themselves,” the politician said.

Higgins faced a political backlash, which included responses from Nigerian bishops and faith leaders.

Among them was Nigeria’s Bishop of Ondo, Jude Ayodeji Arogundade, who said that “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.”

Arogundade argued last month that “alluding to some form of politics of climate change in our situation is completely inappropriate. Such comments associating banditry, kidnapping and gruesome attacks on innocent and harmless citizens of Nigeria with issues concerning climate change and food securities are deflections from the truth.”

Amid the backlash, the Irish president walked back his remarks.

But his perspective on the killing was not unique. Some Nigerian bishops and analysts have said recently that while many Western leaders seem persuaded by the argument that climate change is the principal cause of escalating violence in Nigeria, facts on the ground suggest a different reality.

Bishops have expressed growing concerns in recent years about the targeting of believers who are abducted and killed without trace, and with no prosecution even for identifiable perpetrators.

While all who bear the name of Christ are possible victims, Catholic priests have become an endangered species in the country; priests are abducted in Nigeria almost daily, and seemingly without qualms.

And amid that threat, bishops and analysts have pushed back on the idea that Nigeria’s violence can be explained without a religious basis.

Analyst Nina Shea explained last month that Arogundade “insists that the atrocity is part of a religious-cleansing campaign to eradicate Christians, and Muslims who are not perceived to be Muslim enough.”

That campaign was “ignited a decade ago by Boko Haram Islamists in the northeast. It has since been spread by various Islamist militants, who are increasingly nomadic Fulani. While Christian farmers were murdered in their fields before in the southwest, this is the first large-scale attack against a church in this region,” Shea added.

In 2020, Bishop Emmanuel Badejo of Oyo assessed the Nigerian situation directly:

“It's no secret that in Nigeria, especially with the Buhari government, there are all written laws that have not favored Christians at all, that have favored, in other words, the Muslims,” the bishop told reporters.

“The Christian churches have protested, Christian leaders have protested, but the federal government has not said any word in order to show any desire to protect the Christian religion,” he said.

“There exist some means of persecution that are more systemic and subtle, such as government appointments and written laws which seem to favor Islam over Christianity,” the bishop lamented.

When he delivered a homily during a June requiem Mass for the Owo massacre victims last month, Badejo forcefully criticized the Nigerian government for its perceived inaction in the face of killings of Christians in the country. He mused that it appears to many people that nomadic herdsmen and insurgent groups are more powerful than the federal government, at least at the moment.

Nigeria’s abducted presbyterate

In the first three months of 2022, 896 Nigerians were murdered in violent attacks across their country. That number includes hundreds of Christians who were killed because of their faith, with survivors trying to rebuild lives after the loss of loved ones.

In like manner, the Kukah Center documents that “many communities have been displaced and many farmers are unable to plant and harvest their crops. Consequently, hunger and poverty have risen, and the economy has deteriorated by the day.”

Available data indicates that, “thousands in southern Kaduna, a mostly Christian region, have been killed, and millions more are displaced and destitute. The jihadists can take over and even change the names of entire villages without any government response.”

Analyst Nina Shea describes the situation directly: “For over a decade, Christians have been fleeing ISIS affiliates committing enslavement and religiously motivated murders in Borno and neighboring northeastern states. Now all Nigerian Christians, nearly half of the country’s 216 million people, live in fear of Fulani herdsmen jihadists, who have the apparent tacit approval of President Muhammadu Buhari, the son of a Fulani chieftain, and, as victims of climate change, they have had the sympathy of the State Department and other Western leaders.”

“As elsewhere, this targeting of a religious group occurs in a larger national context of crime, conflict, and terrorist violence, but it is no less an egregious and deliberate persecution of defenseless Christians.”

For many analysts, the religious element of the violence in Nigeria is evidenced by the persecution of priests.

In the last couple of months the abduction of priests have been on the rise:

  • A priest of Auchi Diocese, Fr. Christopher Odia, was killed by his abductors after being kidnapped early in the morning on June 26; the priest was taken from his rectory.
  • A priest of Kaduna Archdiocese, Fr. Vitus Borogo, was shot June 25 at a prison-farm in Kujama, along Kaduna-Kachia road, after a raid on the farm by terrorists.
  • On March 8, gunmen invaded St. John Catholic Church, Kudenda, in the Chikun Local Government Area. They abducted the priest, Fr. Joseph Akete, and killed one security guard. The 48-year old priest was murdered between April 18 and 20, 2022.
  • Fr. Emmanuel Silas, a priest of the Kafanchan diocese, in Nigeria’s northwest, was kidnapped in the early hours of July 4, just this week.
  • Fr. Peter Udo and Fr. Philemon Oboh were kidnapped July 2; their car was attacked as they traveled on the Benin-Ekpoma expressway.
  • Fr. Stephen Ojapa, Fr. Oliver Okpara, along with a pair of siblings, were abducted by gunmen at midnight on May 25, in the rectory of St. Patrick's Catholic Church, in the Sokoto diocese in northwest Nigeria. They were released after more than 30 days in captivity.
  • Fr. Christopher Itopa, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, Onotu, was abducted on June 4, and was eventually freed.
  • On June 3, an expatriate priest, Fr. Luigi Brenna, was kidnapped in front of the Somascan community residence in Usen, while watching football with some boys. He was later set free.
  • Fr. Peter Amodu, a priest of the Holy Ghost Congregation - a Spiritan- was abducted June 6 along the Otukpo - Ugbokolo road in the Otukpo diocese, while he traveled to offer Holy Mass.

A sobering reality

According to Open Doors, in countries like Nigeria, “religious identity is closely tied to national identity, and anyone who follows Jesus risks being seen—and persecuted—as a bad citizen.”

Despite that reality, some now Nigerians now argue that aid organizations unwilling to see the religious character of the country’s violence can do little good.

Respite might come if concerted efforts to change the narrative are made by religious experts both in Nigeria and the West.

The country’s Christian communities can see an end to persecution. But it seems clear that it will take global support and solidarity with and through the suffering Church in Nigeria itself. That kind of solidarity could deliver real, life-changing direct support to victims — helping them rebuild homes and communities, giving them new opportunities.

Whatever role climate change plays in the changing geopolitics of Nigeria, bishops have insisted that religious realities - borne out in facts and figures - must be recognized. To some local priests, it’s not clear whether Churches in the West have yet seen through the misinformation, and seen their way to the sobering reality of Christianity in Africa’s most populous nation.

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