Westerners were shocked by similar execution videos – featuring the beheadings of “infidels” ranging from Western journalists to Christians and Shiite Muslims – posted by the Islamic State as it rose up over a half-decade ago. But the horrifying tactics employed by Islamist terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram have faded recently from the headlines.
Yet Nigerian Christians and their advocates in the United States, including religious freedom organizations and members of Congress, say Boko Haram’s beheading of Pastor Lawan Andimi in January was just one terrible moment in a spreading and intensifying war on Christians in Nigeria and other parts of West Africa.
“The violence against Nigeria’s Christians is increasing and it is intensifying. The forces behind this horrific violence are uniting to raise the flag of the caliphate as they kill, sack villages, and burn churches,” says Stephen Enada, a Nigerian Baptist minister who is also a co-founder of the International Committee on Nigeria (ICON).
“Every day it is mothers and babies, farmers and pastors, who are losing their lives and being displaced, and mostly it goes unnoticed by the world,” he adds. But “unless this destabilizing violence is addressed by the international community, it will have grave consequences for Nigeria, for Africa, and for the world.”
In an effort to rouse the world to attention, Mr. Enada’s ICON joined with other religious-freedom and human rights organizations last week to launch a “SilentSlaughterNigeria” campaign focused on Nigeria’s besieged Christians.
Avoiding a genocide
The new campaign – which earned Mr. Enada and an entourage of high-profile U.S. religious-freedom advocates a few minutes Wednesday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an evangelical Christian – has both a policy objective it aims to reach and hopes of helping the world avoid another stain on the global conscience.
One point to the “Silent Slaughter” campaign is to raise U.S. and global awareness about Nigeria in the same way the “Save Darfur” campaign successfully focused world attention on Sudan’s ethnic-cleansing and war on the non-Arab population (including Christians) in Darfur. That conflict would ultimately be declared a genocide.
Some human rights and religious freedom organizations are ready to declare the killings in Nigeria a genocide. Over the last five years an estimated 7,000 Nigerian Christians have been murdered in a country where just under half of the population of 200 million is Christian.
Christians are not the only or even the primary victims of the Islamist extremists’ war in northeast Nigeria. Over the decade that Boko Haram has terrorized the region, more than 50,000 Nigerians, mostly Muslims refusing the terror group’s version of their faith, have been murdered, with more than 2 million displaced. Still, as in the case of Darfur, it is primarily the killings of Christians that is raising alarms in Washington.
Experts say the pace of killings of Christians has increased, with more than 350 dying in violence so far this year – primarily in the country’s northeast. There Boko Haram, a nascent branch of ISIS, and indigenous Fulani militants are uniting in their common cause of ridding Nigeria’s north and “Middle Belt” of “infidel” Christians.
What Mr. Enada and other advocates of Nigeria’s Christians say they want to help the world avoid is another genocide on the order of what occurred with little global response in Rwanda in 1994. Over a period of just 100 days, more than 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis were slaughtered at the hands of the country’s majority Hutus.
Bill Clinton says failing to stop the Rwanda genocide remains the biggest regret of his presidency.
Still, even some experts who acknowledge an uptick in recent attacks on Christians caution that the violence in northeast Nigeria should not be seen as uniquely focused on Christians or as a monolithic campaign to cleanse the region of its Christian population.
“My impression is that everything the Christians are facing is happening in a context of a lot of violence that is not particularly targeted at Christians,” says Emily Estelle, research manager at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project.
“Christians are certainly not the sole focus of [these groups] operating in West Africa,” she adds, “but they can get caught up in the efforts of one group to differentiate itself from another.” She notes, for example, that for a time ISIS West Africa sought to differentiate itself from Boko Haram, which was primarily targeting Muslim communities that refused its ideology, by “targeting Christian populations rather than Muslim populations.”
The “SilentSlaughter” campaign might seem to face difficult odds, as it comes at a moment of rising global fatigue over humanitarian crises ranging from Syria’s horrific civil war to worldwide refugee numbers not seen since World War II.
Moreover, the U.S. shows signs of losing interest in Africa, with the Trump administration mulling a drawdown of the counterterrorism forces it maintains in Africa in favor of beefing up forces in Asia as part of the administration’s strategy for confronting China in the Indo-Pacific region.
On the other hand, advocates for Nigeria’s Christians say they hope to tap into the Trump administration’s interest in religious-freedom issues and the high placement in the administration of a number of evangelical Christians – from Secretary Pompeo to Vice President Mike Pence – to get action on Nigeria’s struggle with extremism.
“We have in the administration of President Donald Trump an administration that is unparalleled in its commitment to religious freedom,” says Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based fundamentalist policy advocacy group.
“I’m encouraged to see the Trump administration has designated Nigeria a country of particular concern,” he adds. But he lists the accelerating violence, the weekly torching of churches, and the rising displacement of Christian families, and says more must be done.
“This crisis has the potential to affect the entire African continent and Europe,” particularly if the flow of refugees out of Nigeria accelerates, Mr. Perkins says. “We don’t want to look back a decade from now and regret that we allowed another Rwanda.”
“Message to the world”
One thing advocates for Nigeria’s Christians are pushing for is designation of a White House special envoy to focus on the issue – someone whose job it would be to press the Nigerian government for a coordinated effort to stem the violence and to drum up international support for action.
“I look back at when President [George W.] Bush appointed John Danforth his special envoy [for Sudan], he did it from the Rose Garden with Secretary [of State Colin] Powell at his side,” says Frank Wolf, a former member of Congress from Virginia who focused on religious freedom and human rights issues over his time in office.
“That sent a message to the world” about the priority the American president put on the issue, adds Mr. Wolf, who remains active in human rights issues in retirement. “Right now the world is relatively silent on this crisis, but I think a special envoy for Nigeria and the Lake Chad region would do a lot to put it on the world’s agenda.”
ICON’s president Mr. Enada says Americans who might remember the black flag of the ISIS caliphate rising over parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014 should know that already that same flag flies over more than a dozen municipalities in northeast Nigeria.
“That flag represents terrible things for the Christians who used to live there,” he says. “But it should also be a warning to people outside of Nigeria who could be affected by these groups establishing a base from which they operate.”