Nigeria, with about 137 million people, has been a modern missionary success story. According to Operation World, a daily missions prayer guide, the share of evangelical Christians in the country has grown from 5.7 percent in 1960 to 23.5 percent in 2000. Anglicans, Baptists, the Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA), and other groups all report impressive growth.

But religious clashes have killed an estimated 10,000-plus Christians and Muslims since 1999. Christians here say violence has led to another casualty: the country's robust missions and evangelistic outreach. They say the violence has led to the killing and displacement of Nigerian missionaries and has severely hampered church financial support of their ministries. It has also scarred their spirits.

"Whenever Christians are attacked, their homes are burned, churches [are] destroyed, they are displaced, and they become refugees," Nahor Samaila, director of the Evangelical Missionary Society of ECWA, told CT. "So you cannot talk about the advancement of the gospel in this type of situation."

Ministry is difficult where fear is rampant and forgiveness does not come easily. "We had 12 missionary couples in [the] Yelwa area" in Plateau state, Samaila says. "But because of the religious crises we were forced to relocate out of the area. The reason is because our missionaries are in the remotest parts of the rural areas. Our fear is that Muslim attackers could attack them."

Such fear is justified.

Violent Mission Field

Three major geographic regions have emerged as a result of colonialism—the largely Muslim north, the Christian-majority (but still closely divided) central region, and the strongly Christian south. A patchwork quilt of dozens of ethnic groups and competition to control the country's rich resources further complicate matters. The north is dominated by the Hausa and Fulani peoples, who controlled national politics with a succession of corrupt military dictatorships from 1960 to 1998. The south—which is 70 percent Christian—has escaped the brunt of the violence. While authoritative statistics for Nigeria are impossible to come by, Christians and Muslims exist in roughly equal numbers, with a smaller group following traditional African religions.

In 1999 the election of Olusegun Obasanjo, a former political prisoner and a southern Christian, broke northern dominance over the federal government. It also sparked a challenge by northern governors who sought to implement Islamic law in their respective states. Churches have been pulled down. Christians have been convicted and jailed by Islamic courts.

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Most of the recent violence has occurred in the more closely divided central region, where Christian and Muslim missionaries are both active. In Plateau state, thousands of Christians and Muslims have been killed and injured, more than 300 churches have been destroyed, 250,000 people displaced, and $1.25 million spent on relief efforts. The Roman Catholic archbishop of Jos, the state capital, has asked for repentance and a return to God by both Christians and Muslims.

Since September 2001, Muslim militants have taken the religious war out of Jos and into the villages where Christians live. Alexander Lar, president of the Church of Christ in Nigeria, told CT, "Thousands of lives of our members have been destroyed. In Wase area [central Nigeria] alone, 173 churches were completely burned down by the Muslim fanatics. Seven of our pastors were killed. One of them was killed together with the other members of his family—wife and children."

Yakubu Pam, chairman of the Plateau state chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria, told ct that more than 30,000 Christians have been displaced by the attacks.

New Strategies

The political situation has forced Christians to adopt new approaches. There are approximately 700 Western and Korean missionaries from 70 agencies working in Nigeria, according to Operation World. Chuck Brod of the Society for International Missions (SIM) told CT that the conflicts between Muslims and Christians have forced Western missionaries to be cautious about evangelism. Brod says many are focusing on education, agriculture, economic development, and medical work. "Missionaries coming to Nigeria are still interested in rendering various services in ways that will help the people," Brod said.

Femi Adewumi, a Baptist missionary working among the Muslim Fulani in Gombe, a northern Nigeria state, agrees. He told CT that since the implementation of Shari'ah, Christian missionaries are backing off direct evangelism among Muslims.

"We treat their animals, we go to visit them in the market, and we go to their camps to visit them," Adewumi says. "We take doctors to them. We spend weekends with them. We show them [the] Jesus film, we do free health care for them, we use [a] one-on-one method of witnessing and counseling. We try to do everything we can to show them the love of Christ and [are] looking for opportunities to share the gospel with them."

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Even before the current wave of violence between Christians and Muslims, evangelizing nomadic Muslim Fulani has been next to impossible. Adewumi says only 1 Fulani in 10,000 is a Christian. During his first nine years of ministry, Adewumi says only nine Fulani prayed to receive Christ—eight of whom were women.

"A Fulani man sees himself as being born a Muslim," Adewumi says. "The family has the right to kill [him]. So asking a Fulani man to become a Christian is like saying, Come and die. And so it is a very difficult decision for them. The families may persecute them. They may kill them. They may take their wives. They may take their cattle."

The Most Important Task

Still, 3,700 Nigerian cross-cultural workers are doing a great deal of evangelism in Nigeria. According to Brod, learning another language and culture is just part of their task.

In an online prayer bulletin, Brod said, "How important it is to forgive others who have hurt us in the past." In the spring, Christians sustained mind-numbing losses. "No single church is standing," Samaila says. "They have completely been burned down. The two sons of one of our missionaries there, the Rev. Peter Haruna, were killed by the Muslim militants." On May 2 in Yelwa, a town of cattle herders and seminomadic traders, Christians killed hundreds in revenge attacks

"This is really an important issue in Nigeria due to the many ethnic conflicts that have occurred over the years," Brod said. "When Christians have had family members killed by those from other ethnic groups, it's difficult to come to that place of being able to forgive."

The challenge to forgive and minister is ongoing. In August, the central state government of Kwara—led by a Muslim—dispatched police to stop a five-day evangelistic program in Budo-Efo organized by German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke. Officials said they wanted to prevent a bloody incident in Ilorin, the state capital. Christian leader Olusola Ajolore accused the government of pandering to the whims of Muslims in the state.

There are no easy solutions. Muslim militants have burned down a church-run seminary in Kaduna, a central state, several times. Ademola Ishola, general secretary of the Nigerian Baptist Convention, said the sponsoring church plans to relocate it.

"What they burn, we rebuild, and sometimes even relocate to other places where at least our properties can be protected," Ishola says. "That is what we are trying to do."

Obed Minchakpu writes for the Compass Direct news service, which supplemented this report.

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Related Elsewhere:

This article is a sidebar to Mutual Mayhem | A plea for peace and truth in the madness of Nigeria.

During riots in Plateau State this May, we compiled a Hot Topic page of articles as we followed the crisis. The articles include:

Eye for an Eye for an Eye | Are Nigeria's deadly religious riots really about religion? (June 22, 2004)
Weblog: 3,000 Christians Killed in Kano Attacks, Group Says | Nigeria death toll much higher than previous claims (May 21, 2004)
Pastors Killed, Churches Burned | New wave of violence begins in Nigeria. (May 17, 2004)
Weblog: Nigerian Christians Say Nearly 600 Killed In This Week's Riots | A situation in desperate need of hard reporting. (May 14, 2004)
Weblog: Fresh Fighting in Nigeria—Death Estimates Now Over 1,000 | As Muslim prayers ended today in Kano, Nigeria, more violence erupted in the city that officials thought they had largely under control. (May 14, 2004)
Weblog: Eye-for-Eye Religious Violence Blinds Nigeria | Muslims retaliate against retaliatory attack, leaving many casualties. (May 11, 2004)
Weblog: Nigerian Christians Attack Muslims, Kill Dozens | Reports estimate that between 67 and 300 are dead after Christian ethnic Taroks attacked Muslim cattle-herders in the town of Yelwa in central Nigeria's Plateau State. (May 05, 2004)

International Christian Concern has stats and persecution information on Nigeria.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has a six-page policy focus on Nigeria.

More from Nigeria is available from our World Report and from

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