UPDATE: June 26, 2020, 9 a.m. ET: Christian Reformed Church of Nigeria General Secretary Sagarga Nuvalga confirmed to The Gospel Coalition that Emmanuel and Juliana Bileya were killed by members of the Tiv community, a predominantly Christian tribe. Dozens have been killed since last June in attacks carried out between the Tiv and Jukun tribes in the Taraba State.
A Nigerian Christian pastor who graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary in Michigan was gunned down along with his wife Monday while working on their farm in the Taraba State of Nigeria. The couple leaves behind eight children ages 1 to 19.
The Rev. Emmanuel Saba Bileya and his wife, Juliana, who is said to be pregnant, were killed by gunmen who have yet to be identified, according to a statement released by the Hausa Christians Foundation.
“It was an attack on the pastor and his wife on their farm. While they were working on the farm, suddenly armed men came and opened fire on them, leading to the death of the pastor and his wife,” a spokesperson for the state police said in a statement shared by the foundation.
Bileya served as a pastor at a Christian Reformed Church in the Donga local government area. Bileya received a Master of Theology from Calvin in 2014 and served for the last five years at Veenstra Theological Seminary in Donga, according to his LinkedIn profile.
“In what is being noted as systematic direct war against Christianity in Nigeria, pastors, Christian leaders and seminarians are either being kidnapped or killed every week,” the Hausa Christians Foundation statement reads. “Christians in Nigeria have been the target of many attacks by the vicious Boko Haram jihadist Islamist terrorists, herdsmen attacks and many other kidnappings in recent times.”
In a statement released through a spokesperson, Taraba Gov. Darius Ishaku condemned the murder of the pastor and his wife. Ishaku said he sympathizes with the surviving members of Bileya's family and members of the Christian Reformed Church in Nigeria.
“The killing of the pastor and his wife is wicked and inhuman,” the governor’s statement reads, according to Nigeria’s This Day newspaper. "Killings of this nature have happened too often recently in Southern Taraba communities and this is unhelpful to the ongoing efforts of the government to achieve lasting peace among communities in the area.”
Biyela was a doctoral student at the Robert E. Webber Institute of Worship Studies, a nondenominational graduate school in Jacksonville, Florida.
He enrolled at IWS in 2014 and was in the final stage of his doctoral program. He took a thesis course in 2019.
“It is with a broken heart that IWS announces the deaths of D.W.S. student Emmanuel Bileya, his wife Juliana, and their child in utero, whose name is known only to God,” an IWS statement reads. “Their martyrdom was the result of an ongoing ethnic war in their home country of Nigeria.”
According to IWS, Emmanuel and Juliana will receive Christian burials on Friday.
According to IWS, Biyela wrote an explanation of the escalating tribal conflicts ongoing in his local area as recently as two weeks ago.
According to IWS, Biyela wrote:
“This war has been going on for about a month now in my area, since April 2020. Another tribe has destroyed our churches and rumoured that they plan to come to destroy the church where I am working at, which is in a town called Mararraba located in Donga LGA of Taraba State in Nigeria. For some time now, many people have fled the town for safety including my family but I have remained in Mararraba praying and hoping for God’s restoration of peace and protection of the town and church….
The truth is that the war started from a farm dispute. One man, a member of my branch church kindly gave part of his farmland to a man from another tribe to farm. But this year, 2020, the man encroached more into the farmland, of which the owner disagreed. A farm dispute resolution committee with a membership of both tribes was set up to resolve the issue. Although yet to be resolved, the man from the other tribe invited 200 other people who came with guns and forcefully went ahead to farm on the land. When the owner saw them and tried to stop them, they beat the life out of him to the point of death….
While we were trying to calm the situation in town, youths retaliated by beating a man on his farm. After this, 4 of my church members who decided to leave the village and go to different peaceful village to look for a job were shot: 2 were killed, 2 survived. I buried the 2 boys. In summary, the people from one tribe attacked my village 2 times without success but succeeded on the 3rd attempt, they killed some of the villagers and burnt down the whole village with our branch church and the pastorium.”
A fellow Nigerian IWS student who spoke with Biyela five days before his death told IWS that Biyela “mentioned that he sent his children to the headquarters town of his church, but that he and his wife had stayed back.”
According to IWS, that decision saved the children’s lives.
“Born on Christmas Day of 1968, his family gave him the name Emmanuel, ‘God with us,’” the IWS statement continues. “For all in the IWS community who were blessed to meet Emmanuel, share a class with him, or enjoy a meal alongside him, it can truthfully be said that ‘God with us’ was an apt name for him.”
The institution states that the deceased student’s humility and gentleness “spoke to all of the voluminous love of God in His Son, Jesus Christ.”
“Without fail, any email or letter from Emmanuel would begin the same way: ‘Calvary greetings,’ IWS noted. “This constant reminder of Christ’s death was, as Emmanuel well knew, also a reminder of Christ’s victory over the grave.”
“We know that at this time, Emmanuel would want those of us who grieve to place our focus not solely on these tragic deaths, but ultimately on the victory over death that Christ has secured for all who place their faith in Him.”
IWS will release more details on how people can help support Biyela’s children.
Nigeria ranks as the 12th-worst country in the world for Christian persecution on Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List.
Estimates suggest that over 620 Christians have been killed in Nigeria by radical herdsmen and Islamic extremists so far in 2020 as thousands have been killed in recent years.
While the government has maintained that the escalation of violence is a result of ethnic conflicts between predominantly Christian farming and predominantly Muslim herding communities, advocates for Christians contend that religious elements are a factor.