‘This is the worst place in the world’: US faith leaders meet victims of Boko Haram, Fulani herdsmen

St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Zangam, Nigeria
St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Zangam, Nigeria | Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust

American faith leaders met with representatives of Nigerian communities devastated by Boko Haram and Fulani tribesmen as well as key figures within the Buhari administration as part of a fact-finding mission to investigate reports of escalating insecurity in the West African country.

Johnnie Moore, an evangelical communications executive and president of the Congress of Christian Leaders, and Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group, traveled to Abuja on Feb. 17 and met with dozens of victims of terrorism from five different Nigerian provinces for three days. 

“After our journey there, we want the world to know that you haven’t heard half of it,” the faith leaders said in a joint statement. “The terrorists’ aim is to ethnically cleanse northern Nigeria of its Christians and to kill every Muslim who stands in their way.”

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In addition to victims, the two met with the chiefs of staff for both President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo as part of their quest to determine the severity of the situation. They also met with four Muslim leaders. 

Their trip came as thousands have been killed by Boko Haram (an Islamic militant group in Nigeria’s northeast with a splinter faction that has claimed allegiance to the Islamic State) and radical Fulani herdsmen who have in recent years increasingly raided predominantly Christian farming villages in the country’s Middle Belt. 

Reports of barbaric overnight raids, attacks, abductions, executions and displacement of civilian communities have become more and more common. In Nigeria, over 2 million people have been displaced.

Moore and Cooper stressed that if things “do not change immediately,” portions of Nigeria and the broader Lake Chad region “may soon become the most dangerous place on the planet.”

“This portion of Africa will be ground zero for the next generation's war on terrorism, and the humanitarian cost of letting these problems fester and multiply in the near term could result in disaster for much of Western Africa,” they said. 

Moore, who also serves as a commissioner on the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, made the trip in his private capacity. He has long traveled the world to advocate for persecuted believers. Cooper, a longtime Jewish human rights activist, is the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and also the director of its global social action agenda.

Although Moore had been to Nigeria several years ago, he was shocked by how much worse things have gotten there. 

“People are dying every single day and they don't have to be. More can be done,” Moore told The Christian Post. “This is not a poor country. [It's] the wealthiest country on the continent.”

Considering Nigeria was placed on the U.S. State Department’s “special watch list” for religious freedom over the government’s inability to thwart attacks and hold perpetrators accountable, Moore and Cooper came to the conclusion after their meetings that the “status quo is unacceptable.” 

“The scale is just incomprehensible. It seems very, very clear to us that for various reasons, the government is failing at its fundamental responsibility to protect its citizens,” Moore said. “That's not to say that there aren’t people in the government who are good people who are trying to do something about it. They were obviously willing to meet with us. They were willing to answer our direct questions that we asked them.”

“But I can tell you, across every facet of Nigerian society, whether the religious leader was Muslim or Christian or whether the victim was describing something that happened to them in the center of the country or at the hands of ISIS or Boko Haram in the northeast, it was really clear that everyone felt like the government wasn't doing enough or wasn't able to do enough.”  

Among the many people they met with was a girl who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram and was recently released. They also met with villagers whose entire villages had been razed, and a pastor whose church was destroyed twice. That pastor recently brokered a deal for the release of two of his parishioners kidnapped by Boko Haram. 

The faith leaders heard a 9-year-old girl talk about how she saw her parents and siblings killed with machetes. Moore and Cooper also met with about 20 people from one village victimized by Fulani herdsmen attacks in the Middle Belt. 

Some of the people they met with would be better served in a hospital because they were displaying signs for trauma, Moore said. 

Many have claimed that the violence in the Middle Belt is part of decades-long “farmer-herder clashes,” downplaying the religious element of the brutal Muslim Fulani attacks in recent years on predominantly Christian communities. While some have downplayed the religious elements baked into the violence in the Middle Belt, Moore and Cooper said the religious components can’t be ignored. 

“We invited the representative of a village who had been attacked. He brought with him the entire village. We had 20 people in that hotel room,” Moore explained. “These people absolutely felt that this wasn't just about what they had that the other guys wanted. This was about a certain type of religious community that was trying to ethnically cleanse their communities from their villages.”

In their meeting with the four Muslim leaders, Cooper and Moore explained that the imams did not downplay the religious factor behind attacks, especially those carried out by Boko Haram.

“Their statement didn't include: ‘This isn't about religion.’ What it did include is what we often hear is that ‘these are actors who are co-opting our religion who are invoking our faith in ways that are not authentic,’” Cooper explained. 

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean and director of global social action agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, California.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean and director of global social action agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, California. | Simon Wiesenthal Center

“And the second point they make is that … in their estimation, there have been many, many more Muslim victims of [Boko Haram] terrorism than there are Christian. I can't verify yet the veracity of that statement, but that's certainly their perception.”

“They weren't saying, ‘Hey, hold on! These people aren't operating as Muslim players,” Cooper continued. 

“They are Muslims who are inappropriately invoking Allahu akbar and the selection process when they come upon a mixed group. If you can't recite whatever you have to recite, you are going to be executed on the spot. They didn't deny any of that. They just said, ‘Hey, our communities themselves are often victimized by the same forces and yes, they invoke Islam but they do so inappropriately.’”

Moore and Cooper stressed that the problems of insecurity in Nigeria are only getting worse and is starting to impact the entire West African region, not just Nigeria. 

In recent years, there has been increased extremism seen in other countries in the region like Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Niger and Mali. 

In Nigeria, one of the most troubling statistics is that millions of children are out of school because of the violence. 

“They are potential recruits for the alphabet soup of terrorism out there,” Cooper said. “You don't have to be a brain surgeon or Ph.D. or a DHS operative to know that. We've seen the script before. We're now in a whole different zip code in a different continent.”

The two men are calling on the Nigerian government to provide basic protections to its citizens and ensure that children can return to school. 

“Otherwise, you're putting a Band-Aid on four or five different parts of the country,” Cooper argued. “And then when we all wake up, we have — God forbid — another Afghanistan.”

Instead of waiting for international governments and bodies to act on the situation, Cooper and Moore implored Christians in the U.S. and the West to figure out ways they can help protect their brothers and sisters in Nigeria.

“Churches are always targeted around Christmastime,” Cooper said. “There might be some things that can be done privately, from sister churches in the U.S. and elsewhere, to sort of take care of some basic security needs.”

“It isn’t that I'm writing off the international community. It is that there are certain things that just keep happening over and over again. Maybe if there's an initiative of faithful American Christians over there, that may wake up the dead in the government who might say, ‘Hey, wait for a second, why are you guys coming over to help? We should be doing it.’”

While the U.S. government placed Nigeria on its special watch list and added Nigeria to President Donald Trump’s travel ban, Moore said he has been pleased with the U.S.’ response so far. However, he is “disappointed” in the responses of American churches. 

“I am very, very disappointed in the silence of Christians for their brothers and sisters on that continent,” he said. “And I hope that all of this provokes some of these leaders not only to raise their voice louder but to do more themselves and not just wait for the governments of the world to act.”

“I just cannot believe that Christian leaders and churches aren't talking about this in every congregation in every corner of the [United States]. Boko Haram killed more Christians than ISIS in the year of the height of ISIS. This is the worst place in the world, at least in the northeast, where these terrorists are.”

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