Nigerian bishop describes persecution and killings of Catholics: ‘It has become a daily occurrence’

Nigerian Bishop Wilfred Anagbe Nigerian Bishop Wilfred Anagbe sat down with CNA in June 2023 to discuss the ongoing persecution and killings of Catholics in his country, which has grown so much in recent years that, he said, “it has become a daily occurrence.” | Credit: Photos courtesy of Joop Koopman, Aid to the Church in Need United States

Nigerian bishop Wilfred Anagbe recently sat down with CNA in Washington, D.C., to discuss the ongoing persecution and killings of Catholics in his country, which has grown so much in recent years that, he said, “it has become a daily occurrence.”

Anagbe’s Diocese of Makurdi in Nigeria’s Benue State has been among the communities hit hardest by the growing violent persecution.

This past Good Friday, dozens were killed when Muslim gunmen raided an elementary school building in the village of Ngban, which serves as a shelter for about 100 displaced Christian farmers and their families.

The April 7 attack left 43 people dead and more than 40 injured.

“If you see the video, you would just weep,” Anagbe said. “They came and they slaughtered all of them.”

“And [despite] all this happening there have been no arrests. The government is not prepared to take action about this,” he added.

“Nigeria is not like the U.S. where you have state police,” Anagbe explained. “If anything happens in Benue State … you need a call from the headquarters [in the capital] to let the police look into it. So, if they have not been given any instruction they will not go.”

“So, in this situation, we have been caged, we have nothing to do,” the bishop lamented.

A Church under siege

Anagbe has been the bishop of Makurdi since 2015. During his time as bishop, Anagbe said he has seen a “full-blown realization of the Islamic agenda.”

Though the government has made claims that the situation has improved, groups such as the radical nomadic Fulani herdsmen and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a branch of ISIS, have only increased their attacks on Christians.

With Fulani tribesmen increasingly encroaching on Christian territory, not even regions that are majority Christian are safe.

According to Anagbe, Benue State has a population of about 6 million people who are “99% Christian.”

“I tell you, there is no Fulani man who is indigenous to Benue State, so they are coming as invaders or aggressors,” Anagbe said.

Since the start of 2022, there have been 140 attacks on Christians in Benue State, resulting in at least 591 slaughtered faithful, according to Anagbe. 

Because of these attacks, Anagbe said that there are more than 1.5 million Christians in Benue State alone who have been displaced from their homes and villages.

Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic pastoral aid organization, has extensively documented the situation in its efforts to help. In many cases, men are brutally killed and women and children are raped and sent into captivity for the sole reason of being Christian.

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Christians are the target

Anagbe called claims that the violence in Nigeria is being caused by climate change “propaganda.”

“They say it’s about climate change; this is not true,” Anagbe said firmly. “In 1989 there was the Abuja Declaration that Nigeria should be established as an Islamic state; this is what we are seeing gradually now today.”  

“We should be allowed to worship God,” Anagbe said. “As it is now in some places you cannot even go to Mass and then you go to Mass with a lot of heavy security, within your own country, and that should not be.”

Because of the violence and constant attacks, Benue State is in an increasingly desperate situation. According to Anagbe, homes, schools, and whole villages are destroyed regularly.

Despite the seemingly impossible situation, Anagbe said his faithful and his diocese will continue to trust in God and keep working to rebuild.

“We can’t give up. It’s painful, though, and it’s really traumatizing, but we cannot give up,” he said. “God remains to be the hope we have.”

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Personal impact

Anagbe said that leading a diocese facing such persecution has taken a deep personal toll.

“For me, it’s been a very traumatic experience, and it’s something I don’t wish anybody to go through,” Anagbe said. “Within [three years] I have lost 18 priests, some of them kidnapped and then released but some die in the process.”

One of the hardest parts, Anagbe said, is that he feels the violence has separated him from his people. Sometimes he cannot reach them because of the danger; other times, his people are simply no longer there.

“I have lost about 13 parishes,” Anagbe said. “It’s difficult. You are moved by the zeal of the apostolate to preach the mission, but you cannot go there, and the people are not there.”

“People are leaving, and they don’t know where to go. They are living as refugees but in this case, they are refugees in their own country, in their own state,” the bishop added. “This is their predicament, and they cannot go home, and nobody comes to assist. So, it is very painful.”

“But we have every hope that one day it will be over,” Anagbe said confidently.

‘The blood of the martyrs’ 

Despite the escalating persecution, Nigeria has by far the highest Mass attendance in the world.

Ninety-four percent of Catholics in Nigeria say they attend Mass at least weekly, according to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. 

“The [Church] Fathers said, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christianity,’” Anagbe said. “In moments of crisis, you talk to God when human beings have failed. We have to keep our faith alive.”

“Persecution has been part and parcel of the life of a Catholic,” he added. “But then it doesn’t stop the faith of the people.”

“We constantly keep on praying,” Anagbe said. “God will surely hear our prayers. So, that’s why the Mass is so important and why we pray. We have to trust God in the midst of this crisis.”

Appeal to American Catholics

The bishop’s appeal to American Catholics was very simple.

First, he asked American Catholics to “intensify their advocacy support so that their representatives will know that there is a greater concern of human beings, not just Christians, but human beings who are being eliminated.”

To Anagbe, the stakes are very clear.

“If we keep quiet a generation will be wiped out; the population will be wiped out,” he said. “People are being killed. We cannot just continue to keep quiet. These are defenseless people. So, I want every person to know that there are these atrocities taking place in Nigeria.”

Secondly, and “very importantly,” he asked for prayer.

“God answers prayers,” Anagbe said. “Prayer will sustain us and sustain the faith of the Church.”

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