The recent news reports about Christian persecution coming out of Nigeria are horrifying. A day after Christmas, extremists who identified themselves as part of ISIS murdered 11 Christians in Nigeria. A few weeks into the new year, on Jan. 19, the Islamic State of West Africa released a video of a child — who looked to be around 10 years old — executing a Christian man in Borno, Nigeria.
A few days later, on Jan. 22, a Nigerian pastor, the Rev. Lawan Andimi, was beheaded by Boko Haram’s militants. Andimi had made international news for turning a hostage video into a testimonial about his faith in Jesus. “By the grace of God, I will be together with my wife, my children, and my colleagues,” Andimi said. His murder triggered protests in 28 of Nigeria’s 36 states, drawing an estimated 5 million people to denounce violence against Christians.
While the world has been consumed by news about Iran, China and conflicts in other regions, Nigeria’s militant and extremist groups have waged a campaign of death and devastation against Christians.
Persecution-monitoring groups such as Open Doors and U.K.-based Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust estimate that more than 7,000 Nigerian Christians have been killed for their faith in the past five years. The brazen, bloody attacks by Boko Haram and ISIS-affiliated militants tragically have made these groups into household names. But there is another extremist group operating in Nigeria that is just as deadly — and you probably have never heard about it.
Every year, hundreds of Nigerian Christians are being assaulted, tortured and killed by Fulani extremists in the Middle Belt region of the nation. In 2019 alone, an estimated 1,350 Christians were killed by militant Islamic groups in Nigeria, according to Open Doors. Reports from the ground indicate that the Fulani were responsible for at least 500 of these deaths. Most recently, on Jan. 26 and 27, the Fulani attacked two villages, setting a church building ablaze and killing at least 26 people.
Not long ago, a team from our organization, World Help, traveled to Nigeria to meet with a prominent Christian leader to discuss the situation. “Our people are being killed,” he said. “They are being hacked to death. Entire communities, hundreds, have been sacked — destroyed and taken over by Fulani herdsmen.”
According to World Watch Monitor, the Fulani are the “world’s largest nomadic group,” and they believe they have the right to take land in Nigeria to graze their cattle. “It is a concept in Islam called ‘sacred space,’” said one Nigerian pastor. “According to this concept, all land has been given by Allah to the Muslims, and the Muslims have a right to claim any piece of land. And most of the areas that the Fulani are attacking are Christian communities, so it is very easy to see that what is happening is ethnic cleansing to advance the cause of jihad.”
The Fulani make up the fourth largest ethnic group in Nigeria, which is home to more than 200 million people. The Fulani are traditionally Muslim, and some radicalized herdsmen have engaged in jihad against Christian farmers, especially in Plateau State.
The clashes between Fulani herdsmen and Christian farmers are of a complex nature. The Middle Belt of Nigeria has been claimed by different ethnic groups over the years who have been caught in a cycle of violent attacks and retaliations. Consequently, the growing violence in the region has tribal, territorial, religious and even environmental underlying factors.
“The Fulani extremists do not constitute a single terrorist group,” says the 2019 Global Terrorism Index, which is published by the Institute for Economics & Peace and ranks Nigeria third among 138 countries that are plagued by terrorism. “Certain deaths within the ongoing conflict between pastoralists and the nomadic Fulani have been categorized as terrorism and attributed to extremist elements within the Fulani. This categorization is reflective of terrorism used as a tactic within an ongoing conflict.”
Although Fulani extremists are not part of an organized terror group such as Boko Haram or ISIS, their crimes are no less reprehensible. The fact remains: Christians are being persecuted and killed. Men, women, and children are being slaughtered, and their deaths largely are being ignored.
A report by Open Doors indicates that 99 percent of the Christian persecution that happens in Nigeria is of a violent nature. While our team was in Nigeria, we saw the effects of this violence firsthand. Refugee camps were packed with widows and orphans. One little boy told us the Fulani had surrounded his family’s house and shot his father. They kicked in the door, shot two of his brothers, and then turned their machetes on him and his little sister. They still bear long, raised scars on their faces and heads — permanent reminders of that horrible night.
Fulani attacks like this are all too common. Huts are burned down with people trapped inside. Roadblocks and false police checkpoints are set up to ambush minibuses and vehicles. In fact, the violence has gotten so intense, that some human rights observers have begun to question whether the Fulani’s persecution of Christian farmers constitutes genocide. Clearly, this is an issue the world needs to be paying closer attention to. Christians in Nigeria are in desperate need of our help.
We need to pray and speak up for them. We also can respond to their immediate needs by partnering with humanitarian organizations that send aid to persecuted Christians. Our organization provides Bibles to Nigerians who have been displaced from their homes and are living in refugee camps.
Whatever we do, let’s not forget Christians in Nigeria and their suffering. We cannot allow this persecution to go unnoticed.