Six children temporarily escaped a government-run children’s home last weekend in northern Nigeria to attend a church service for the first time since they were removed from a Christian orphanage last December, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
CSW, which advocates for persecuted Christians in over 20 countries, reports that the children were formerly housed in Du Merci Center Christian orphanages in Kano and Kaduna states but were removed from the homes on Christmas Day in 2019 when the orphanages were shut down by authorities.
According to CSW, the orphanage’s proprietors were accused by the government of running “illegal” children’s homes even though they were registered with appropriate government bodies. The orphanage's leaders have in turn accused the government of trying to convert children taken from the orphanages to Islam.
Twenty-seven children from the Du Merci homes have been transferred to a government-run home in Nassarawa. The Du Merci children have not been allowed to leave the premise since arriving at the government-run home and have not been able to attend school or church, according to the nonprofit.
Mercy Tarfa, who co-founded Du Merci orphanage with her husband, Prof. Solomon Tarfa, in 1996, told CSW that the children approached a security guard at the Nassarawa Children’s Home last Sunday morning to ask permission to attend a church service.
After the guard refused their request, the children left anyway. After a police search of the area, all but six of the children were reportedly located near the government-run home.
Tarfa said that she received a call from a church leader in Sabon Gari, a predominantly Christian area, telling her that the missing children were at his church. Tarfa said she picked up the children and took them back to the government home, accompanied by her lawyer.
“CSW is deeply concerned by the unnecessary restrictions on the children from the Du Merci Centre, which violate their rights to freedom of religion or belief and education, amongst others,” CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said in a statement.
“The children are being treated like prisoners, and reports that one of them has been physically assaulted should be of utmost concern. We call on the government of Kano state to allow these children to return to the Du Merci Centres, which they consider to be their home.”
According to CSW, the children have also faced verbal and physical abuse and have been under pressure to convert. There is at least one allegation of physical assault by a police officer.
CSW alleges that earlier reports stating that those seized from the orphanages are ages 3 to 12 are erroneous because the group also includes a 30-year-old female graduate, a 22-year-old man and a married woman who was visiting the orphanage with her baby.
Prof. Tarfa has been detained by authorities since Dec. 25 on what CSW calls “excessive charges.”
According to Matthew Braimoh, the director of advocacy for Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s Nigeria office, about 25 police officers armed with guns stormed the Kano orphanage on Christmas Day. Prof. Tarfa and 19 people, as young as 3 months old, were taken to a police station. Eight other people taken from the Du Merci center in Kaduna were transferred to Kano.
“At the police station, the children were given papers to make statements which the police wrote for them and one of them, aged 24, was told to state he was a staff,” Braimoh wrote in an op-ed.
“The first allegations were that Du Merci was an illegal operation. But upon presentation of documents of registration, five days later the allegation was changed to criminal conspiracy and abduction.”
Braimoh explained that Du Merci was registered as an orphanage by the Ministry of Women Affairs. He stated that the orphanage had in the past even received 120 bags of rice and other relief materials from President Muhammadu Buhari.
“The contention here is that the proprietors who are Christians are operating a faith-based outfit in Kano,” Braimoh stated. “This is a case of persecution, marginalization and discrimination on grounds of religion.”
According to CSW, Tarfa was offered bail on Jan. 3. However, the terms of the bail are “so steep” that he has not been able to meet them.
The Tarfas faced a similar effort to close down their ministry in 2002.
“[T]he same judge who was in the matter in 2002 is the same judge handling the matter at the High Court now,” Mercy Tarfa was quoted as telling those gathered for a prayer and advocacy event organized by CSW Nigeria last week.
“In fact, the chief justice of Kano state said he should be included in the matter because he is interested in the case. … My husband has been in prison for three months and counting. We were refused giving him food severally because the prison/state officials prevented us."
Thomas is calling on Nigerian authorities to issue Prof. Tarfa his unconditional release because the charges against him are “unfounded.”
“For over two decades, the Du Merci Centre has undertaken commendable work in caring for vulnerable children, providing stability in a family environment, and successfully bringing them through to adulthood,” Thomas said. “The government of Kano state must allow this work to continue and ensure that due process is observed in all proceedings.”
Nigeria ranks as the 12th worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution on Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List. In December, the U.S. State Department added Nigeria for the first time to its “Special Watch List” of governments that have engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.”