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Although some, including U.S. State Department officials, would paint the post-election violence as purely political, the head of the advocacy group Justice for Jos, attorney Emmanuel Ogebe, refutes this claim. While Muslims and Christians in southern Nigeria get along fine, on this particular occasion there is an intersect between religion and politics when it comes to the Shariah-compliant north. And besides that, Ogebe says that for the Islamists in northern Nigeria, “anything is used as an excuse to kill Christians — beauty pageants, lunar eclipses, school exams, political elections….” These are the sundry reasons in the last dozen years alone that have sparked violent, deadly attacks against Christians. He calls it their “default setting.”
Ogebe reported that strikes on Christians took place simultaneously in rural districts of a dozen Nigerian states (northern). Some initial attacks took place in the middle of the night, when the Christians were least able to defend themselves. And anti-Christian sentiment was inflamed in many of northern Nigeria’s mosques, since in those areas Islamists emerged from mosques with the goal of killing anyone who is an “infidel” whether they voted for the Christian president or not. Victims were made to quote the Quran, not identify for whom they had voted.
Nigerian church leaders agree with Ogebe. In a May 3, 2011 press briefing in Kaduna State, leaders of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) called for a federal investigation into the violence that targeted Christians. “Islamic attacks on churches reflect [the] religious dimension of political conflict,” said Compass Direct News Service.
Compass Direct’s May 3, 2011 story quotes Pastor Emmanuel Nuhu Kure who demanded, “How would you explain a spontaneous call to prayer on most of the loudspeakers of the mosques across the city at the same time, at 9 p.m. or thereabout in the night, with a shout of ‘Allah Akbar’ as Muslims began to troop towards the mosques and designated areas, to be followed at 10 p.m. with another call on loudspeakers – this time with a spontaneous shout of “Allah Akbar” from the mosques and most of the streets occupied by Muslims and the burst of gunfire sound that shook the whole city?” Kure said that these actions were repeated a few times, and then “the killings and burnings began.” And another CAN leader, Bishop Jonas Katung, national vice president of the North Central Zone of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, stated that the post-election attacks “were ‘a descent into barbarism’ in which northern Christians were targeted and subjected to horrendous and relentless acts.”
After performing the obligatory “deploring” of “the violence” in an April 28 press briefing, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson assured the media that “the president and the main opposition candidates both called on their supporters to not support violent activities and to work to restore peace as quickly as possible.” Yet the media has reported in the past that Buhari told his supporters “never again allow an infidel to rule over you,” and the instigators of violence (possibly including members of the military) are identified as “Buhari boys.” In the May 3 press conference in Kaduna Bishop Katung said, “We refuse to accept the subterfuge of ‘spontaneous combustion.’”
On the other hand, the U.S. State Department is happy to accept the subterfuge of spontaneous combustion. Carson said that the successful democratic process of the Nigerian elections sends “a very strong signal across Africa” and referred to Nigeria as “the second largest Muslim country in Africa after Egypt.” But violence against Christians, committed with impunity and without condemnation from the international community, also sends a strong signal. As does a high-ranking U.S. government official referring to secular, largely Christian, Nigeria, not as the country with the second largest Muslim population in Africa, but as a “Muslim country.”
According to Ogebe, “Such statements demoralize the already traumatized Christian minorities of the North and trivialize the significant Christian majority in the South.” He adds that “it is bad enough to be persecuted at home without a senior U.S. diplomat ‘proselytizing’ the whole nation into Islam by a misguided characterization.”
In typical State Department parlance, Carson encouraged President Jonathan to “act in both a responsible and inclusive manner in the selection of those individuals for his cabinet.” This would “heal the political divisions” which he said “were uncovered [as if they have not been evident for over a decade] during the election process.” But selecting cabinet members in an “inclusive manner” will do nothing to stop the rage of Islamists offended by the idea of an infidel as president. Nor will it protect the Christian community in northern Nigeria from future attacks. Ogebe says the silence of the U.S. on this violence, which is the worst since the country fought a brutal civil war in 1967, could hinder efforts to assess the full extent of the carnage and to seek a solution to decades of recurring persecution.
Pretending the jihad against Nigerian Christians is mere political division and remaining silent about the egregious persecution is about as sensible as pretending the terrorist threat against America is a criminal justice issue, or pretending that justified concerns about the spread of Shariah are Islamophobia that can be squelched by a campaign against hate.
Faith J. H. McDonnell directs The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).
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