Nigerian bishop: Christian persecution is “more intense now than ever”

Bishop Stephen Dami Mamza of the Diocese of Yola Bishop Stephen Dami Mamza of the Diocese of Yola, pictured in 2015. | Ogalaemmauel/CC BY-SA 4.0

A Nigerian Catholic bishop has challenged the United States Secretary of State to justify his decision to remove Nigeria from a persecution watchlist, saying that he has witnessed firsthand the brutal ongoing persecution against Christians in Africa’s most populous nation. 

"As far as we are concerned, here in Nigeria the persecution is more intense now than ever," Bishop Stephen Dami Mamza of the Diocese of Yola said in a Nov. 2021 interview with the Religious Freedom Institute. 

Mamza’s diocese is located in northeastern Nigeria, in Adamawa State, near the border with Cameroon. Mamza’s appointment as bishop of Yola came in 2011, when insurgents with the ISIS-aligned Boko Haram terrorist group were launching attacks in the region. 

In the interview, Mumza addressed the fact that Nigeria no longer appears on the U.S. State Department’s list of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC), a watchlist of countries with the most egregious violations of religious freedom. 

Nigeria was listed in 2020, but the country was not included in the 2021 list, released in mid-November. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) had been recommending the designation of Nigeria as a CPC since 2009.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a Nov. 18-19 visit to Nigeria to meet with President Muhammadu Buhari, but it remains unclear why the State Department removed Nigeria from the watchlist.  

"How is it that Nigeria is different from the Nigeria of two years ago?" Mumza asked, asking Blinken to produce statistics or evidence to warrant Nigeria's removal from the list. 

The U.S. Secretary of State has not had "any contact with us, has not met us and asked us questions," which Mumza described as "really disheartening." Persecution continues, Mumza reiterated, and those who are living in Nigeria "are still feeling it, and we are still experiencing it."

Boko Haram attacks in Adamawa State have included coordinated attacks on businesses, civilians, police stations and government offices in January 2012 that left at least 180 people dead; a November 2015 market suicide bomb that killed 30; and December 2016 double-suicide bombings that left at least 57 people dead, ACI Africa reports. 

At the peak of the insurgency, many people — an estimated 400,000 — came into Yola seeking shelter. Mamza says the experience traumatized many, and many were killed. 

"It's hard to figure out if there is even one family that has not lost at least one person," Mamza lamented, adding that he himself lost his older brother, as well as several cousins and uncles. 

"Almost everybody has been affected in one way or another."

By 2016, he said, many of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had come to Yola sought to return to their homes. 

"But unfortunately, before they went back their homes were already completely destroyed, and then there were land mines on their farms, even in their houses," Mamza said.

"It wasn't easy. Some of them had to come back because they had nothing to hang on to, they had no food, they had no shelter."

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This past February, Mamza oversaw the construction of several houses in his diocese meant to accommodate victims of Boko Haram. 

In Nigeria as a whole, at least 60,000 Christians have been killed in the past two decades. An estimated 3,462 Christians were killed in Nigeria in the first 200 days of 2021, or 17 per day, according to a new study.

Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation and the demographics overall are almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims. Nigeria's Christians, especially in the northern part of the country, have for the past several decades been subjected to brutal property destruction, killings, and kidnappings, often at the hands of Islamic extremist groups.

Part of the problem, Nigerian Christians have told CNA, is that the Muslim-controlled government has largely responded slowly, inadequately, or not at all to the problem of Christian persecution.

Fulani herdsmen, a Musim ethnic group, have been responsible for the most killings as of late, having murdered an estimated 1,909 Christians in the first 200 days of 2021.

Eric Patterson, executive vice president of the Religious Freedom Institute, told EWTN News Nightly on Wednesday that the U.S. Secretary of State has argued that much of the Muslim-on-Christian violence has to do with land and water rights. 

"That type of materialist worldview really does not explain what's going on," Patterson asserted, and said the U.S. de-listing of Nigeria sends a message to the government that they can continue to "look the other way" and that the persecution can continue with impunity. 

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Mumza, too, emphatically disputed the claim that Fulani herder violence is mainly based on economic disputes, asserting instead that anti-Christian sentiment is at play. If it is a conflict over resources, Mumza asked, why do the herdsmen need to go to a house in the middle of the night, kill everyone in the household, and burn the house down?

Mumza concluded his interview by asking for prayers, particularly asking that people pray that the faith of persecuted Nigerian Christians be strengthened. 

"We are ready to die for our faith," he said emphatically.

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