In recent weeks, Boko Haram, the Sunni terrorist group in northern Nigeria, has doubled down in its ongoing killing spree, taking the lives of Christians by the hundreds and also declaring an Islamic caliphate in the region, local church leaders report.
In April, the group’s kidnapping of 276 girls, mostly Christians, from a school in Chibok drew global outrage. But 219 of those girls are still missing as are hundreds of other abducted children. The group has killed at least 2,000 Nigerians in the first six months of this year, according to Nigerian officials. In total, 650,000 people fled northern Nigeria to escape violence. Some 1,600 Nigerian Christians have died at the hands of Boko Haram and other groups, according to the Jubilee Campaign.
This week, at the six-month anniversary of the Chibok kidnappings, rallies have been held in Nigeria, the U.S., and other nations to press Nigeria's government to do more to rescue the kidnapped girls and suppress Boko Haram.
A leading Nigerian evangelical, Samuel Kunhiyop, author of African Christian Ethics,serves as general secretary of Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), a 5-million-member denomination in Nigeria. ECWA has been doing frontline evangelism in Nigeria since 1954. In recent years, this group has planted hundreds of congregations in Muslim areas of Nigeria. Kunhiyop spoke with Timothy C. Morgan, CT's senior editor for global journalism.
Is Nigeria as bad as we read in news headlines?
It’s even worse. Hundreds of churches have been destroyed, over 50 in Kano alone. One church and ministry has been built seven times and destroyed seven times. Another has been built three times and destroyed three times. Pastors have been murdered in their houses. Another was murdered in the church during a prayer service.
The situation is much worse further north in Yobe and Borno states, the headquarters of Boko Haram. People have fled residences where their forefathers lived for generations. Christians have been the victims.
Are Christians being targeted? Or are these attacks possibly reprisals against the government or civilized activity of any kind?
Boko Haram is an extremist Islamic organization. In 1992, the Islamic community expressed its desire, along with the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), to make all of Nigeria a Muslim state. [Nigeria is an OIC member.] Over 90 percent of buildings destroyed by Boko Haram are Christian churches.
But the church in the north is strong and vibrant. Boko Haram wants to eliminate the churches because they are unacceptable to Muslims. They don’t want Christians in the Muslim areas, so they bomb those places of worship, or refuse to give them a license to worship.
Is the government turning a blind eye to these attacks?
The government is doing something, but the problem is beyond its ability. Even moderate Muslims fear for their lives. One Islamic scholar and two imams have been killed. But Nigeria’s population is 178 million. President Goodluck Jonathan said Boko Haram has infiltrated government security. When government tries to do something, the infiltrators sabotage it. Even some top military generals have sympathies with Boko Haram. How can we deal with this if we cannot identify the enemy?
Security in our churches is very tight. At one point, our female worshipers couldn’t even carry a purse inside a church—only a Bible and maybe a pen.
How are you giving Christian leaders encouragement and hope?
I encourage people by reminding them that a church is not made of blocks and buildings, though we attach ourselves a lot to such. The church is made up of people who believe in Jesus Christ. Members need to teach each other to defend themselves and take care of their own security because the government cannot.
If you see gunmen coming to attack, you call the police. But by the time the police come, the gunmen have already finished you. When people in one torched village called police around 2 a.m., the police said they didn’t have a vehicle and gas so they didn’t come. This happens all the time.
You cannot be sure whether you will be alive tomorrow or whether you will return from the office. This summer a bomb exploded about a block from my place. We could have been destroyed. I tell leaders, “Be ready. Your life could be taken any time.”
Churches are full. We plant churches every week. When I was growing up, the belief was that if you are slapped on one cheek, you turn the other cheek, a passive response. But now the young people are saying, “These guys come and kill us in our churches, destroy our churches and buildings. We’re just supposed to watch them? We’re not going to take this sitting down. We’re going to fight back. They destroy our church; we destroy a mosque. They kill our people; we want to go and kill them.”
We have to work on the Christian response, especially when the government that is supposed to defend us cannot. Gandhi says an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind. If the Muslims kill us and we kill them, then we kill ourselves. There’s no place where revenge has ever solved any problem.
I have never believed that revenge is the way forward. I do believe in active response. We have to respond to this issue, but revenge doesn’t take us anywhere. We have to love them. But with young people, it’s not that easy.
What is the local agenda of Boko Haram in a violence-prone place like Kaduna?
Muslims say they don’t want the Christian presence of an ECWA church on Aminu Street in Kaduna. When the church was built, Kaduna was about 60 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian. Now it’s almost 100 percent Muslim. So the ECWA church relocated after the seventh time Muslims burned it. The church tried to stay there, but the destruction was just too much so they rebuilt in the southern part of the city. Many members have been killed. It’s horrible, just horrible. Another pastor was murdered in his church, which was also destroyed three times.
The church has not declined in any way. In fact, it is growing stronger. But it is difficult for us in Nigeria when you are forced out of a place that legally is your own. Do we need to love Boko Haram members? Do we need to care for them because they want to kill us? Yes. But they want to make us miserable. They victimize us.
Also, Boko Haram has threatened to attack southern Nigeria. This summer, three bombs were found in a big southern Nigeria church. Even Christians in the south feel vulnerable. That’s exactly what Boko Haram wants — to see that everybody is scared and victimized so they can make Nigeria ungovernable and take over.
With persistent drought in northern Nigeria, conflict over land and water rights are increasing between Muslim Fulani herders and Christian farmers. Is this situation driving much of this conflict?
I don’t think so. The farmers and herdsmen have always fought. Why is it that only now they are using highly sophisticated weapons? Come on. They’re getting sophisticated weapons and support from somewhere. They are attacking police, police stations, military barracks, government buildings, and innocent people. Clearly somebody else is supporting them.
Boko Haram admitted they have connections to Al Qaeda. It’s no secret. As Christians, we’re just trying to make a living, to find a place for our cows to feed. Why would we burn down a whole village and kill women and children?
What’s something that the typical American Christian can do to help support Christians in Nigeria?
Support organizations such as SIM [Serving In Mission]. Churches have been destroyed and need rebuilding. We have orphans who need to go to school. One Nigerian ECWA missionary was in a bus when a Muslim man pointed a gun at him and said, “Choose to remain a Christian and be killed, or convert.” The missionary refused to convert, and the Muslim shot him dead. He left his wife and five children now in school. They need support. There are many cases like that. Who will take care of them? The husband, the breadwinner, is gone. Many widows and orphans are struggling.
Is there some other, greater role that the Christian church should be playing in Nigeria to bring a lasting peace?
The problems are huge. We need leaders to get into government and pull not only for Christians, but also promote justice for everybody, to see that things are done well and to improve the economy. Young people are finishing their university education with solid degrees, but there are not enough jobs. We need government leaders to do the right thing.
Does corruption infect the church in Nigeria?
So many people ask me this question. Man by nature is inherently corrupt and evil, whether in Nigeria, Africa, America — it’s everywhere. That’s not to justify it. For example, when I say widows and children can be supported, I mean the money can be properly accounted for.
People are inherently corrupt. There are controls. My own denomination insists on transparency and accountability. When we are given money, we account for it. We’re willing to be accountable and responsible.
Do you see prosperity preaching as a big concern in Nigeria?
It’s the thing now, prosperity teaching and health and miracles. Africans are very vulnerable because the traditional African worldview is that if God loves you, then things should go well with you. Prosperity teaching has exploited that worldview.
The problem with prosperity preaching is that it’s a mixture of truth and falsehood. “If you’ll come, I’ll heal you.” People are swallowing it. It’s going to catch up with us. My fear is that people will turn away from the faith. A Christian needs to teach them the Word of God. ECWA’s theme this year is “Preach the Word of God.” Only in heaven are we promised no tears or sorrow or sickness.
We hear reports of fabulous growth, people flooding into churches, new churches planted weekly, that Nigeria will be a Christian majority nation. Are these accounts credible?
They are very credible. The question is not whether the church will grow but how deep that church will grow. You can start a church today and in three months it’s easy to have 2,000 members. I don’t even pray that a church will have converts. I pray for Christian maturity, that people will know the Word of God, that this is what is expected of them as Christians.
I’ve heard this said by missionaries: “Christianity in Africa is a mile wide and an inch deep.”
It’s true. You can’t have the church deeply rooted without shepherds — the teachers, the pastors. But some big churches in ECWA have justtwo pastors. The church in Abuja has two services, close to 3,000 members, and only three pastors. A pastor works every day from Monday to Sunday, from 8 a.m. until 9 at night sometimes. I say, “My friend, you’re going to kill yourself.”
You must have minimum of three years of theological education to be a licensed pastor. That’s why when I was president of a seminary, we had supporters who would give money towards scholarships. Students could not pay. Some supported these pastors.
Christians have also done helpful outreach to Muslim hospitals and schools. Medical care is important. We have the ECWA teaching hospital in Jos. We take everybody as patients. Some Muslims refuse to go to the government hospital.
Is Nigeria a dangerous place? Yes, but when I lived in Chicago, I would go to downtown classes at the University of Chicago, which was dangerous too. People are being shot and killed everywhere.
We keep hearing reports of many Muslims turning to Christ.
We are raised to witness to Muslims through our lifestyles. My car mechanic is a Muslim. Through our life and interaction, we are friends, living together. Some Muslims will only go to a Christian hospital. We take care of them. Public schools are not good so Muslims send their children to Christian schools. We have evangelists and missionaries. The most effective way of witnessing to a Muslim is one on one, not a group. But Christ also reveals himself personally. I know three to whom the Lord Jesus Christ revealed himself in a vision. One came from far north in Borno, where Boko Haram has its headquarters. The Lord Jesus appeared to him and said, “I want you to follow me.” He couldn’t resist it.
Radio is powerful because broadcasts go where Christians cannot. The story of Abraham and Isaac makes a lot of sense to Muslims. They come with questions. They want to be discipled. We have specialists who teach them, talk with them, consult with them. It’s very exciting.
It seems to me that Nigerian Christian leaders have a deep passion to do the hard things.
You’re right. Some of our churches are planted on hills where people live primitively, as if it were more than 100 years ago. Nigerians are planting churches and living with those people. That’s where a church is supposed to be.
What is Nigeria’s unique gift to the global church in terms of its approach to Christianity?
The idea of community is that we Nigerians are one and that we can support each other. The Kenyan Christian philosopher John Mbiti said, “I am because we are, and because we are, therefore I am.” The church in Nigeria is just a small part of the whole body of Christ. Nigeria’s church is vibrant and mission-oriented. We have churches in the United States, England, Israel, South Africa, many African countries.
We are not afraid of dangers. We’ve seen it all. Sometimes people say we’re loud-mouthed and aggressive. Somebody asked me yesterday if Muslims destroy the church, why can’t Nigerian churches go underground or form house churches?
I replied, “Nobody’s going to stop us.”
In Jos, there was a terrorist bomb explosion. The following day people went out on the streets as if nothing happened. If we’re going to die, we’re going to die. But nobody’s going to stop us from doing what we’re supposed to do.
We stay in the game. Life would not be worth living without doing. Where is a place that’s danger-free?
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