WASHINGTON—As Christians in the United States celebrate Christmas with decorations, presents, and feasts, their brethren in Nigeria will celebrate differently on Tuesday. Nigerian believers will gather at churches to commemorate the birth of Christ with a holiday service.
And they’ll risk their lives doing it.
Violence marred the last two Christmases in Nigeria as the Muslim terrorist group Boko Haram targeted Christians in shootings and bombings at churches, homes, and shopping areas in central and northern Nigeria. Dozens have died each year in the attacks, including 37 fatalities in a Christmas Day bombing last year at St. Theresa Catholic Church outside the country’s capital, Abuja.
During his recent visit to Washington, D.C., I asked Musa Asake, general secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), if the violence of the last two years would keep people from gathering at churches on Dec. 25. He said, “Nothing will stop us from worshiping our God.”
Asake, who earned his doctorate from Dallas Theological Seminary, spent six years as a pastor in Jos, a central Nigerian city of 900,000, before becoming second in command at CAN earlier this year. CAN has chapters in all 36 Nigerian states, and Asake said in January he plans to start a database of Boko Haram’s attacks on Christians—although he hopes he won’t have anything to track.
Nigeria is Africa’s most oil-rich and populous country, counting about the same amount of Christians and Muslims among its 160 million citizens. Christians are mostly in the south, and Muslims live mostly in the north, which has enacted strict Sharia law for people of all faiths.
Boko Haram—whose name means, “Western education is sinful”—is responsible for at least 750 deaths this year alone. The militants want Sharia law enacted in all of Nigeria, each of the group’s imprisoned members released, and removal of the country’s Christian president, Goodluck Jonathan, who was elected last year.
The U.S. State Department has refused to designate Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), pointing to “sectarian violence” fueled by economic—not religious—issues. Asake said it’s “unfortunate” that some pass off the violence as economically motivated: “By killing, does that keep someone from being poor? Does killing help give someone a job?”
In September, stateside Nigerian believers formed the Christian Association of Nigerian Americans (CANAN) to help spread awareness and pressure the U.S. State Department to label Boko Haram an FTO. (See “Standing with the brethren” from the Dec. 15 issue of WORLD.)
Some of the violence has targeted other groups, such as twin suicide bombings at telecom company offices on Saturday, but the majority has been aimed at Christians.
Nigerian authorities have said they are ramping up security ahead of the Christmas holiday. Asake said believers are not discouraged, but they are “issuing a cry for help” to the rest of the world.
“I ask Christians to pray for us as we approach this Christmas season,” he said. “We must be alert, and trust in God that this year will be different.”