Ethnic tensions in the developing world are nothing new. To be honest, they rarely capture international headlines because they are so commonplace.
That has not been the case in Nigeria, where a religious dimension is intertwined with conflicts over land and political power.
On March 7 more than 200 Christian villagers were killed by Islamic extremists of the Fulani heritage. Women and children were not spared. Many of the killings were done with machetes and knives.
Some news reports have indicated that the killings were retribution for the deaths of Muslims in the nearby city of Jos in January.
The complexity of the story, however, goes well beyond a back-and-forth of what group – religious or ethnic – may have started the latest round of cyclical violence.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation with nearly 150 million people according to the CIA World Factbook (By the way, if you have a middle school or high school student at home who needs to do research on a foreign country, the CIA site is a great place to start.)
The country is also a major oil producer, both for Europe and North America. It has been beset by political instability in recent months, too, as Nigerian president Umaru Yar’Adua just recently returned from traveling to Saudi Arabia in November to have a serious heart condition treated. He has not been seen in public while he was gone nor since his return.
The rise in violence has happened as acting President Goodluck Jonathan has tried to gain his bearings.
Open Doors is a California-based ministry which services persecuted Christians around the globe. While Nigeria does not have a state-sponsored ban on Christianity, it is a divided state with Muslims largely occupying the northern half of the country and Christians in the south. The Plateau area where the massacres occurred is in the center of the country where the two faiths mix.
“There is no doubt Nigeria plays a pivotal role as Africa’s most populous nation,” Open Doors CEO Carl Moeller said in a telephone interview with Everyday Christian. “In a sense this a dramatic stage where you have two great world religions facing off. You have a vibrant evangelical and Pentecostal community and a Muslim majority in the north that is being radically influenced in some places.
“When you layer the religious differences over the tribal and economic disparities in the country as well, it leads to a volatile situation.”
The villagers who were attacked live in subsistence agriculture and the current tensions are fueled in part by access to farming and grazing land.
On March 22, more than 160 people were arrested in conjunction with the massacre.
Moeller disputed claims that the attacks were revenge for alleged Christian on Muslim violence in Jos and said the attacks were a reflection of a laissez-faire approach on the part of the federal government that has allowed ethnic and religious tensions to simmer and sometimes boil over.
“The violence during the recent past has been due in part to political paralysis to deal with the situation,” Moeller said. “The north has been left to pursue policies with impose (Muslim) Sharia law and the south has been run and ruled locally by Christians. The national government is committed to keeping the peace and by doing so is guaranteeing more violence by downplaying the nature of the conflict instead taking up reconciliation.
“Instead what happens is the situation is left to fester and we see hatred spurt out with these extreme cases.”
Moeller contended that reconciliation efforts between Christians and Muslims are more than just hypothetical.
“Over the years we have been able to help engage Anglican bishops, some Pentecostal leaders and some local moderate Muslim leaders to work very hard in their communities toward healing,” he said. “This reconciliation works when religious leaders go house to house through their regions with mutual respect. This type of community building is too rare, but it is powerful picture of how differences don’t need to lead to cycles of violence.”
He noted, too, as North American Christians prepare for a festive and safe celebration of Easter Sunday, that Christians in Nigeria and many other countries enjoy neither the same freedoms nor worship opportunities.
“This is the one week a year where the American church takes a long and hard look at the face of real suffering in face of Jesus,” Moeller said. “We consider Holy Week and the reality of the Garden of Gethsemane and the torture Jesus endured giving his life in the most horrible of ways.
“After Good Friday we have Easter and the parallel here is that so often wherever we see persecution see revival. It is difficult to come to terms with, but so often suffering goes hand in hand with amazing things happening in the church. What we need to remember as comfortable and affluent North Americans is that our brothers and sisters around the world are suffering the same set of trials Jesus did for their faith.”