Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

Boiling point

Nigeria | Nigeria's 'Middle Belt,' where Christian South meets Muslim North, is where Islamist violence is brutally coming to the surface

Issue: "O Jerusalem," April 10, 2010

For Nigerian Mark Lipdo, the last few weeks in his hometown of Jos have been like enduring "a horror film." Lipdo is director of Stefanos Foundation, a Jos-based organization that helps suffering Christians in Nigeria. Lately, the suffering has been immense.

Muslims gangs raided three predominantly Christian villages in central Nigeria's Plateau State in the pre-dawn hours of March 7, slaughtering more than 300 people-mostly women, children, and the elderly. Ten days later, another gang attacked a nearby Christian village, killing at least a dozen people and burning at least 15 homes. Lipdo witnessed the carnage at both sites: "Little children-those who were sucklings still with their mothers-those were the ones massacred most."

Nigerian Jotham Kangdim, a professor of religious studies at the University of Jos and an associate pastor of the local Church of Christ in Nigeria, said it was difficult to describe the gruesome scene: "What I can say is that it was well beyond my imagination."

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If central Nigeria is a melting pot for Christians and Muslims from a handful of different ethnic tribes, it's also a boiling pot for violence. With mostly Christians in the south and Muslims in the north, the so-called Middle Belt in the country's central region attracts both Christians and Muslims, and an ongoing conflict that has grown worse since January.

Meanwhile, the December arrest of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab-the Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day-suggests the boiling pot threatens to spill over into international soil: Abdulmutallab grew up in Kaduna, 100 miles west of Jos.

The violence in March, though, stayed close to home: Muslim raiders from the Fulani tribe strode into Christian villages, shooting into the air. When villagers emerged from homes to investigate, the raiders were waiting with machetes. Kangdim described the aftermath: "Some of the bodies we saw had their heads dismembered, while many had their limbs chopped off." Lipdo reported that some victims burned in their homes. "Some of them were roasted," he said from his cell phone in Jos. "You could see a little child turned into charcoal."

The March attacks followed an outbreak of violence in Jos in January. Some reported that Christians provoked the fighting with Muslims that left hundreds dead-both Muslims and Christians. But handfuls of Christian sources-including Kangdim, Lipdo, and reports from the religious freedom group Barnabas Fund-disputed those reports. They said Muslims p­rovoked the January violence.

Local police told reporters they did not believe the March attacks were merely retaliation by Muslims. B.A. Kwashi, the Anglican archbishop of Jos, told WORLD: "There is a great concern over the presence of Muslim extremists, the style of killings-the precision and organized manner."

Others share that concern. Noting that Islamic extremism has risen in northern Nigeria over the past decade, Kangdim believes Muslim extremists are bringing that campaign to the Middle Belt: "This is a gradual scheme to wipe out Christians in Jos . . . and gradually expand their hold on the surrounding areas." Lipdo agreed. "They are just out to destroy," he said of the gangs that attacked Christians. "And some of them are seeing it like an advancement of jihad." Lipdo and the archbishop said many Muslims in the area are willing to seek peace in the conflicts that include some ethnic and political strains, but extremists derail progress.

For now, Christian leaders in Nigeria are trying to help those suffering. Lipdo said many have lost their homes to arson, and they need food, shelter, and clothing. He says little international help has arrived. Even though authorities have arrested 163 people in connection with the March attacks, many are traumatized by the brutal violence and frightened of more attacks. For many, fleeing isn't a viable option, said Lipdo: "They are just learning to stay with the trauma."

For Kangdim and many other Christians, living with the trauma means clinging to faith in Christ. "I have chosen the way of the cross, therefore wherever it leads me I will go," he said. "The Master did not refuse to travel through it, so why should we?"

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


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