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TERROR: The inside of St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Kaduna, Nigeria, following a suicide bombing on Oct. 28.
Victor Ulasi/AFP/Getty Images
TERROR: The inside of St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Kaduna, Nigeria, following a suicide bombing on Oct. 28.

Standing with the brethren

Nigeria | A group of Nigerian-Americans organizes to support violence-plagued Christians in northern Nigeria

Issue: "2012 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 15, 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C.–In Nigeria more than 1,000 Christians crowded into St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Kaduna on the last Sunday in October. The small one-room structure offered bare walls and a tin roof as protection from the elements, while three-blade ceiling fans kept the warm air circulating. 

Father Mike Bonni was offering communion prayers when a black Mercedes SUV arrived at the front gate around 8:45 a.m. Guards—youths equivalent to Boy Scouts—got into a brief argument with the driver, then watched helplessly as he rammed through the barricade and careened into the church. The suicide bomber and his ensuing explosion tore a gaping hole in the 10-inch concrete wall, damaged nearby buildings, and sent projectiles flying into the congregation. Ten Christians died and 145 were injured. 

No one took credit for the suicide bombing, but it bore the markings of Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group responsible for killing more than 750 people in Nigeria this year. The group’s standing list of demands includes implementing Sharia law in all of Nigeria, freeing all Boko Haram prisoners, and toppling the country’s Christian president, Goodluck Jonathan. Muslim gangs destroyed more than 700 churches in a 48-hour period when Jonathan took office in April 2011 (see “Nowhere to run,” March 10, 2012)—and the violence isn’t stopping. 

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In the United States, Nigerian Christians have decided to come alongside their brethren in Nigeria, fighting back with the creation of the Christian Association of Nigerian Americans (CANAN)—an organization committed to raising awareness about what its members call “pre-genocide” conditions in their homeland. CANAN leaders also are pressuring the U.S. State Department to add Boko Haram to its list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs), which they say would send a serious message to political leaders and financial backers. 

Some inside the FBI agree, and the Department of Justice has joined several lawmakers in pressuring the State Department to label Boko Haram an FTO, giving law enforcement more flexibility to combat the group. The State Department in June did name its top three leaders terrorists.

But lacking an overall U.S. terrorism designation, Boko Haram can operate without threat of sanctions or tracking. That not only makes it easier for Boko Haram to advance its operations, but also for sympathizers to arm and finance the group, which has been linked to al-Qaeda. 

The State Department has been reluctant to label violence against the churches as terrorism, instead using the term “sectarian violence,” indicating Christians are participants in the violence—and that it’s fueled by economic rather than religious tension. 

Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil-producing country, has roughly the same amount of Christians and Muslims in its 160 million population. Christians are predominant in the south, and Muslims dominate the north, where many states have enacted Sharia law, even though millions of Christians live there. 

“Religion is not driving extremist violence in either Jos or northern Nigeria,” said Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of African Affairs at the State Department, to a gathering in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. Yet, Jos, a central Nigerian city of about 900,000, was the site of 37 Muslim attacks on Christians in 2011, according to Stefanos Foundation. 

Boko Haram also killed nearly 200 in attacks in Kano last January. Yet after those attacks Carson cited poor health, education, and poverty in the north and said they are the reasons violent extremism is flourishing.

Though they aren’t saying so publicly, some at the State Department are worried about legitimizing Boko Haram and possibly helping the group’s recruitment efforts if it is labeled an FTO. They believe FTO designations for groups, such as al-Shabaab in Somalia, may have emboldened them to more violence and expansion of terrorism.   

There’s also concern the designation would give the moderately corrupt Nigerian government license to abuse and kill people at will, using Boko Haram as an excuse. In October, three days before CANAN held a Washington press conference to speak out on the attacks against Christians, a senior member of Boko Haram was arrested at the home of a Nigerian senator, suggesting the terrorists may have support with some in the government. Amnesty International released a report in November accusing both the government and Boko Haram of serious human-rights violations. CANAN chairman James Fadele said the Nigerian government is “no longer capable” of stopping Boko Haram without “drastic international help.” 

Mark Lipdo, director of Stefanos Foundation (based in Nigeria), told WORLD Christians have engaged in retaliation (such as killing the man who led the Oct. 28 suicide bomber to the church in Kaduna), but he believes reports of Christian reprisals are exaggerated. Stories often cite anonymous “officials” or “authorities” who feed media faulty information that portrays Christians as doing an equal amount of killing, although most Muslim deaths have come at the hands of fellow Muslims. 

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