The shameful silence over Nigeria’s persecuted Christians

Western leaders are turning a blind eye to Islamist violence.

Paul Coleman

Topics Free Speech World

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Nearly 10 years ago, 276 girls were kidnapped by Islamist terror group Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria. The girls were mostly Christians, a minority in the overwhelmingly Muslim north. Boko Haram targeted the girls both for their religion and for having the audacity to be young women seeking an education.

The kidnappings sparked the #BringBackOurGirls social-media campaign, which became a worldwide phenomenon. Unfortunately, nearly a decade later, it is clear that the campaign has been far from successful. Nearly a hundred of the Chibok girls remain in captivity. Kidnappings and sexual slavery are still widespread in Nigeria. And Islamist terror has spread both beyond the north and beyond infamous groups like Boko Haram and Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP). Marauding Islamists regularly terrorise the country, leaving many Nigerians to live in constant fear.

This violence shows no sign of stopping. Almost 700 women and children were kidnapped in the past three weeks alone. At the beginning of the month, Boko Haram took roughly 400 individuals from a camp for internally displaced persons in the northern state of Borno. Then, only a few days later, 287 children were kidnapped from a school in Nigeria’s north-western state of Kaduna.

While both Muslims and Christians alike are victims of this widespread violence, Nigeria’s Christian population is often specifically targeted. Most recently, 61 Christians were kidnapped in a different village in Kaduna last week. Eyewitnesses said militants surrounded the small village entirely to prevent anyone from escaping.

These kidnappings have multiple causes. Ransom payments provide an easy opportunity to make money in a region that is desperately poor and under-policed. But there are also clear religious and ideological motives for these crimes. Extremist Islamism has taken root in the region, hence why the targets so often tend to be Christians, girls seeking a ‘Western’ education or a combination of both.

One such victim was Leah Sharibu. Leah was kidnapped by ISWAP at the age of 14 with her 109 classmates back in 2018. ISWAP terrorists killed five of the girls and released most of the others. But Leah was told that she would only be released if she renounced her Christian faith and converted to Islam. She refused and is reportedly still held in captivity today, six years later.

Nigerian Christians face persecution and violence on a shocking scale. One estimate shows that over 8,000 Christians were murdered for their faith in 2023. According to another report, a further 2,400 Christians were abducted over a six month period from 2022 to 2023. Why, then, do we hear so little about this brutality in the West?

The Islamist component to this violence leaves Western leaders uncomfortable and unsure of how to talk about the crisis. Last month, the European Parliament condemned a massacre of Nigerian Christians on Christmas Eve. And while it called for action to be taken against Islamist groups, it also named ‘climate change’ and ‘environmental degradation’ as root causes of the violence. This is displacement, pure and simple.

Even Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has been reluctant to call the kidnappers what they are. Writing on X earlier this month about the horrific number of schoolchildren who had been kidnapped, he described the perpetrators not as Islamist terrorists, but as ‘gangs’. Mere ‘gangs’ do not kill 50 people celebrating Pentecost at church. Nor do they stone people to death and light them on fire for talking about Jesus. Or raze whole Christian villages over Christmas.

Some government bodies and international organisations are beginning to wake up to the enormity of Nigeria’s crisis. Last month, members of the US Congress voted to call on the Biden administration to challenge Nigeria on its lack of religious freedoms. Yet there have been no widespread campaigns led by world leaders this time around, as was the case with #BringBackOurGirls in 2014. The Western world has been largely silent over the thousands murdered for their faith every year. And those who do speak up are reluctant to name its ideological roots.

Until we wake up to what is really driving this violence, the murders and kidnapping will only continue. The West must break its silence on Nigeria’s persecuted Christians. The refusal to condemn this Islamist violence smacks of pure cowardice.

Paul Coleman is a lawyer and executive director of ADF International. He is author of Censored: How European Hate-Speech Laws are Threatening Freedom of Speech.

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