Christian Communities Disappearing Near Nigeria

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In a village
outside this Bauchi state town in predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria,
what was once a Christian community has vanished.

Last
March the Christian peasant farmers of Mdandi village, eight kilometers
(five miles) northwest of the Government Girls Secondary School in
Tafawa Balewa town, were busy harvesting crops and preparing for a new
farming season.

On March 27 scores of armed, hard-line Islamists—avoiding the surrounding Muslim villages—descended on Mdandi,
destroyed the Christians’ homes and drove them out, former residents
said.

The attack on Mdandi was preceded by an assault on
Feb. 10, believed to have been the fall-out of violence rooted in Muslim
and Christian youths fighting over a Muslim’s Jan. 27 burning of a
Christian’s billiards table. Some Christians were injured in the Feb. 10
attack.

“On their first attack, we fought back, defending
ourselves and our families,” said Luka Zafi, pastor of the Church of
Christ in Nigeria congregation in the village. “And not being
able to force us out, they retreated. We had thought that we would not
be attacked again. But you see, they left and returned the second time
with more of them, and all armed with guns. We could not fight back
since we do not have arms to fight them. We ran out of the village, and
they destroyed our two church buildings and our houses.”

Zafi, whose house was gutted in the March 27 attack, said his church
building along with a Roman Catholic Church building were set ablaze.
Area Christians are now living as displaced persons in Tafawa Balewa
town, while some of his members have moved to the suburb of Nahuta
village.


Prior to the attacks, Zafi’s church had 50
members, he said; they are now scattered among various villages. A
Compass visit to the village found Muslim Fulani nomads had taken it
over and were using it to graze their cattle.

The marauders
were believed to have been Islamists from other parts of Bauchi state
collaborating with local Muslims and Fulani herdsmen. The Christians
said they believe they were targeted, as the assailants bypassed
surrounding Muslim communities.

Zafi lamented that
three months after the attacks, the Christians have received no
assistance from the state or federal governments.

“We
appeal that they help resettle my people back in Mdandi village,” he
said. “The government can do this by assisting the community to rebuild
their destroyed churches and houses.”

One reason the
government has been slow to check Islamist aggression is that neither
officials nor Western news agencies question false claims that the
ethnic Seyawa Christians steal the Fulani Muslim herdsmen’s cattle, the
supposed reason for the Fulani attacks, according to area Christians.
They said many people are not aware that some local Christian farmers
also own cattle and have never stolen them from the Muslim nomads.


Because
the religious crisis in neighboring Plateau state has also been
portrayed as communal property squabbles, the government has limited its
response and many lives of Christians have been lost because of
inaction, they said.

Zafi said the need for the
government to halt the attacks of the Muslim militants in northern
Nigeria was more important than restoring the Christians’ property.

“Unless this is done, I am afraid, Christians in this part of the country may be on their way to extinction,” he told Compass.

Following
the gutting of their church building, his congregation used the primary
school in Nahuta village as their worship place, he said.

“But
because we did not have houses to live in around there, we had to
disperse to the various villages in search of abodes,” he said. “So the
church members no longer meet to worship together.”


COCIN has reassigned Pastor Zafi to assist with another church in Nahuta village as an associate pastor.

Nigeria’s
population of more than 158.2 million is divided between Christians,
who make up 51.3 percent of the population and live mainly in the south,
and Muslims, who account for 45 percent of the population and live
mainly in the north. The percentages may be less, however, as those
practicing indigenous religions may be as high as 10 percent of the
total population, according to Operation World.

Neighboring Violence
Muslim
extremists also attacked Gumel, another Christian village in Tafawa
Balewa Local Government Area, in February—leaving two Christians dead,
destroying three church buildings, burning more than 50 houses and
displacing more than 300 residents, Christian leaders said.

Killed
in the Feb. 5 attack was COCIN church elder Mallam Riga Ubandoma, they
said. A 14-year-old girl, Numkwi William, died from a snake bite while
fleeing from the assailants.

Residents have taken refuge
in Tafawa Balewa town. Ishaya Magaji, 65, pastor of the displaced Gumel
COCIN church, told Compass that the Muslim aggressors took them by
surprise at 5 p.m. that day.


“They overpowered us, so we
had to flee with our wives and children,” Pastor Magaji said. “They
burned our houses and destroyed our properties.”

Before
the attack, Magaji said, his church had about 166 members; now all of
them have been displaced. Magaji and his wife, Saratu, are
living with their nine children at the house of other Christians until
they receive help to find a new home.

“We cannot return to
the village—not only because our houses have been destroyed, but
because the Muslims have taken over the village and are using the place
as a grazing field for the Fulani Muslims in the area,” Magaji said.

Besides
the COCIN church building, the Muslim extremists also destroyed the
buildings of a Roman Catholic parish and an Evangelical Church Winning
All congregation. He said most of the villagers have been displaced to
other towns and villages in Tafawa Balewa, including Rafin Ganba, Bwar,
Mantokshin and Nahuta.

Bulus James, a Gumel village teacher, is among those displaced.


“I
was in my house that evening when I heard gunshots all over,” James
said. “I ran out of my house, only to see a large number of armed men
shooting at our people, setting fire on houses and churches. I had no
choice than to run into the bush, and that is how I survived the attack.
Since then I have not gone to the village, because the Muslims have
taken over the area.”

James, who now teaches at the COCIN
Metropolitan School in Tafawa Balewa, estimated the number of raiders at
about 200 and said they were carrying guns.

Magaji, saying
the attack on the village was part of an extremist jihad (Islamic war)
being waged against Christians in Bauchi state, said Muslims easily
attacked the Christian village because it is surrounded by the Muslim
villages of Yamgar, Wurogara, Shafali and Sakom.

“We have
lost all that we have and have nowhere to turn,” he said. “The
government should help us by rebuilding our churches and homes so that
we can all return to the village.”

Attempts by Compass to
visit Gumel with Magaji were thwarted, as they were chased away by
nomadic Muslim Fulani herdsmen who have taken over the village.


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