- (Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde)
The president of the Christian Association of Nigeria has suggested that Muslim extremists, specifically al-Qaida-linked Boko Haram, are not simply trying to push Christians out of the mostly-Muslim northern areas, but are actually using violence in an effort to expel believers from the country altogether.
Nigeria has been suffering from religious violence for years, with attacks often occurring during the Christmas season. At least three dozen people were killed in a string of bombings last month. Since December, more than 80 Christians have been killed by radical Muslims, according to the International Christian Concern (ICC), an advocacy group. In addition, the violence has also spread to southern Nigeria, where Muslims and their places of worship have been attacked in apparent retaliation for the killing of Christians in the north.
Jerry Dykstra, Media Relations Director at Open Doors USA, told CP Tuesday that Christians have been feeling increased pressure to take revenge. His organization fights Christian persecution worldwide.
"The pastors there have tried to quiet that especially among the young people. Unfortunately, Christians have retaliated. I guess it's a matter of what would you do if your church was attacked and your family was murdered?" he said.
Most recently, a mosque and an Islamic school were burned down in the southern Nigerian city of Benin on Jan. 10. Five people were reportedly killed and six were injured in violence in the city, but reports have not specified the identities of the victims.
Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, CAN's president, decried the Nigerian government's failure to protect Christians from attacks and accused some security agents of taking sides.
"The security agencies are polarized along religious lines," he said. "Even when the security agents have information (concerning security measures to be taken against Boko Haram), some of them pass the information to these criminals. This is because some of the security agents are more loyal to their religion (Islam) than to Nigeria as a nation."
It also emerged Wednesday that the man believed to be behind the deadly Christmas bombings managed to escape authorities after being captured.
"I think some people are trying to change the demographics on [the] ground; to do everything to move them out of the North," the church leader said, insisting that politics were at play. Oritsejafor claimed that Muslim politicians were sponsoring young people – members of Boko Haram – to do the killings.
That concern was confirmed by ICC’s religious manager, Jonathan Racho, who told CP that even President Goodluck Jonathan suspects his government has been infiltrated by Muslim extremists.
Jonathan has been facing mounting criticism for not providing adequate protection for the nation's Christian community. Oritsejafor addressed his president in the interview: "You must muster the political will to make strong decisions. Any of the heads of the security agencies that are not performing, you should remove."
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has also found evidence to support the charge that President Jonathan could do more to protect vulnerable Christians and other citizens that have found themselves under attack.
"The United States must vigorously press the Nigerians to address the violence through law enforcement and prosecutions, such as during meetings of the U.S.-Nigeria Bi-National Commission," the organization’s chair, Leonard Leo said recently.
Open Doors listed Nigeria 13th on its list of nations in which Christians are most persecuted. A solution to the problem may start with Muslim-Christian cooperation, Dykstra said, but the terror sect will not be stomped out until Jonathan’s government takes greater control of the situation.
"I think Goodluck Jonathan is feeling the pressure and the heat and [Christians should] pray for him to make decisions so that this doesn't turn into a major civil war," Dykstra said.