Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Religion Unplugged on June 10, 2022.
On Pentecost Sunday in Owo, Nigeria, a horrifying massacre took place.
“Streaks of blood on the floors and walls, sandals abandoned in a desperate rush to escape, a well-thumbed Bible lying among shards of glass,” Reuters reported on June 6. “Those were some of the disturbing sights inside St. Francis Catholic Church in the Nigerian town…after unknown assailants attacked the congregation with guns and explosives during Sunday mass, killing and injuring dozens of people.”
Various estimates of the St. Francis Xavier church death toll ranged widely from 20 to 50. An email from a Nigerian friend pleaded with U.S. friends, “Please pray for our bishop and his people…untreated victims are dying of their wounds.”
The early casualty estimates all proved to be low. On June 8, “An ABC news source with direct knowledge of the investigation said the bodies of 82 victims were in a local morgue. Another source briefed on the latest U.S. intelligence assessment said the estimate was over 80. Both sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because they didn't have authorization to speak to the press about the ongoing probe.”
“I saw a lot of dead bodies — both young and old, even children,” said Steven Omotayo, who lives near the Owo church.
Explaining that the church has three entrances, and the main entrance was locked, Omotayo said this made it difficult for many to escape. Meanwhile, “They were just shooting. If they see anyone trying to escape or stand up, they will just shoot the person,” he told reporters. “Everybody standing was bombarded with bullets.” The assault was carefully planned, as some of the perpetrators had seated themselves among the congregants, infiltrating the church.
Unfortunately, the St. Francis church massacre is only the latest outrageous account of anti-Christian terrorism in Nigeria. There have been countless others.
Just weeks before the Owo carnage, in another horrifying incident, the violent murder of a young Nigerian Christian college student once again focused international attention on ongoing abuses. In Sokoto, Deborah Emmanuel was viciously beaten to death, and her body burned to ashes by nearly 200 of her Muslim classmates. They were offended by Deborah’s recent WhatsApp post, in which she thanked Jesus for her successful final grades on a final exam, and implied that good grading was more difficult for Christian students. Her remarks (which have since been deleted) were interpreted as blasphemy against Islam – a crime deserving of death according to Islamic Sharia law.
Deborah's father later described the horrifying scene he witnessed, standing in a crowd and utterly powerless to intervene: "As they were struggling with the security men, one of the mob hit her on the head with a huge iron rod, and she fell to the ground. That was how they began to stone her, hit her with rods and sticks, and she died. She was killed in the presence of all the security agents. After they killed her, the mob was jubilant ... students and people from the villages were all shouting Allah Akbar, Allahu Akbar."
Unsurprisingly, for many Nigerian Christians, fear of violence is pervasive. “At home, people do not sleep with two eyes closed because of the fear of being attacked by gunmen,” Christian clergyman Ugochukwu Ugwoke laments. “Today is the third day since the attack on the innocent worshippers of St. Francis Catholic Church took place, yet no arrest has been made. It is surprising that an attack of such magnitude happened…and the terrorists just strolled out of the town without any trace.” Ugwoke concluded, “Nowhere is safe be it at home, in the market, in the streets, in the farms and even in the house of God.”
Nigeria’s population is almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. In 2021, a Family Research Council analysis of Nigeria’s struggle against violent extremists stated that around 12,000 Christians had been killed for their faith since 2015. More recently, far worse statistics have been documented.
Open Doors International, monitoring global Christian persecution, recently reported “…In Nigeria, a Christian is killed for their faith every two hours; that’s nearly 13 Christians a day and 372 Christians a month. ... Research for the 2022 World Watch List reveals that in 2021, more Christians were murdered for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country. Last year, Nigeria accounted for nearly 80% of Christian deaths worldwide, with more than 4,650 believers killed.”
Nigeria is a nation of great energy and tremendous potential. It is the largest and most populous and prosperous country in Africa, with vast natural resources and a thriving economy. Yet it continues to be ripped apart by unmitigated brutality. In response, in 2020 then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Nigeria a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), providing the U.S. with significant options to address the surging religious violence.
However, to the dismay of most concerned observers, less than a year later, the Biden administration removed the CPC designation – without a word of explanation. The delisting has since amounted to a license for escalating violence, and an outrageous betrayal of Nigeria's increasingly brutalized Christians. In the months since its removal, violent accounts have continued to mount, including assaults by well-armed death squads, mass murder, rape, kidnapping and mutilation, torched homes, villages and churches, and devastated refugees. In the last decade Boko Haram alone has displaced over 2 million people, and left some 4.5 million people food insecure.
Writing for the Wall Street Journal on June 7, in light of the ever-increasing terrorism. President of Open Doors USA David Curry made a public appeal to President Joe Biden, asking him to take action in Nigeria regarding the CPC designation:
“Given the carnage at St. Francis Xavier Church, the president should redesignate Nigeria immediately,” Curry wrote.… “Mr. Biden has the opportunity to send a clear signal that the U.S. won’t stand by as the innocent faithful are persecuted. He should make the redesignation and enforce sanctions without delay.”
We can only pray – along with our Nigerian brothers and sisters – that David Curry’s appeal to the White House is clearly heard and quickly granted.