Reports of Christians attacked in central and northern Nigeria receive more attention, but in more southerly Benue state Islamic extremists killed at least 205 Christians in the last six months alone, sources said.
According to a story by Morning Star News, in the southeastern part of Nigeria's middle belt, Benue State's Agatu Local Government Area saw deadly attacks on Christian farmers by Muslim, ethnic Fulani herdsmen from May through November. About 10,000 people were displaced, Christian leaders said.
As in attacks in Plateau state, several of the perpetrators appeared to be mercenaries from outside the area rather than herdsmen, and locals questioned how the Fulani became so heavily armed.
In some of the attacks a herdsmen spokesman alleged stolen cattle as the reason for the bloodshed, but Morning Star News said the Nigerian press has frequently claimed that motives for the attacks were unknown.
Christian leaders, however, said they had no doubt the Muslim assailants aimed to demoralize and destroy Christians.
"These attacks on Christian members of our churches have disrupted church activities, as Christians can no longer worship together in their congregations," Reverend David Bello, bishop of the Anglican diocese of Otukpo, told Morning Star News.
Rev. Michael Apochi, Roman Catholic bishop of Otukpo Diocese, added that attacks by Muslim Fulani gunmen have devastated Christian communities.
"Life has become unbearable for our church members who have survived these attacks, and they are making worship services impossible," Apochi told Morning Star News by phone.
The two Christian leaders called on the Nigerian government to urgently take measures to curb unprovoked attacks on Christians in rural areas of the state.
In the early hours of November 9, Muslim Fulani gunmen killed 25 Christians in seven villages, said area Christian leader Sule Audu.
"Seven Christian communities were completely ravaged by the rampaging Muslim Fulani gunmen," Audu told Morning Star News.
He added, "The previous Thursday, November 8, two Christian communities of Ikpele and Okpopolo were attacked by the Muslim Fulani herdsmen in a raid that resulted in the killing of three persons, injuring many others, and the displacement of about 6,000 Christians."
The attacked villages were Ello, Okpagabi, Ogwule-Ankpa, Ogbangede, Ekwo, Enogaje and Okpanchenyi, he said.
Another area Christian leader from Agatu, John Ngbede, confirmed the attacks.
"It is true that Agatu is under attack by Muslim Fulani herdsmen at the moment," he told Morning Star News.
He added, "Many of our Christian brethren have been killed. The Muslim gunmen that are attacking our Christian communities are numerous; they are so many that we can't count them. They are spread across all the communities and unleashing terror on our people without any security resistance."
Most of the 6,000 Christians fleeing for their lives have taken refuge at neighboring Apa Local Government Area and at Obagaji, he said.
"We are tired of these unending bloodbaths being carried by the Fulanis," Ngbede said. "Moreover, we would also want the Nigerian government to step into the matter by beefing up security and extending assistance to the victims of these attacks in the affected communities."
In all, Christian leaders in Benue State said that the Muslim Fulani gunmen invaded seven Christian communities in one week in November, killing and maiming members of the communities.
Daniel Ezeala, a deputy superintendent of police and the Benue state police spokesman, said the attacks have continued.
"Seven Agatu Christian villages are currently under heavy attacks from armed gunmen believed to be Fulani herdsmen," Ezeala told Morning Star News.
He added, "We can't confirm the exact number of causalities now. However, we are on top of the situation."
Christians believe Islamic extremist groups have increasingly incited Fulani Muslims to attack them in Plateau, Kaduna, Bauchi, Nasarawa and Benue states. They suspect that Fulani herdsmen, with backing from Islamic extremist groups, want to take over the predominantly Christian areas in order to acquire land for grazing, stockpile arms and expand Islamic territory.
Christians make up 51.3 percent of Nigeria's population of 158.2 million, while Muslims account for 45 percent. Those practicing indigenous religions may be as high as 10 percent of the total population, according to Operation World, so the percentages of Christians and Muslims may be less.
On Oct. 12, Morning Star News reported, gunmen killed 30 Christians in Oguchi-Ankpa, Christian leaders said. Apochi and Bello said the Christians were killed in their sleep after Muslim Fulani herdsmen broke into their homes. Houses, church buildings and other property were destroyed in the attacks, they said.
On Oct. 4, Muslim Fulani gunmen attacked Ejima, killing three Christians, according to Stephen Dutse, chairman of Agatu Local Government Council. Three days prior, Christian and community leaders in the area had declared a month of fasting and prayer in the face of unceasing attacks on them, he said.
"It has become necessary to seek God's intervention in the face of the frequent attacks on Christian communities here by Muslim Fulani herdsmen," Dutse said by phone.
"Not less than 60 Christians have lost their lives in three attacks by Muslim Fulanis within the last two months, November and December, while over 10,000 Christians have been displaced and church activities been suspended."
On Sept. 29, Muslim gunmen killed 13 Christians in the Agatu area in the early hours of that Sunday morning as they began worship services.
On July 1, Morning Star News reported, Christian leaders said Muslim Fulani gunmen attacked Christians in Okpanchenyi village, killing 40 people.
On June 8, Muslim Fulani gunmen attacked a Roman Catholic Church farm at Ichama Christian community of Okpokwu Local Government Area of Benue state.
Juliana Obeta, chairperson of the Okpokwu Local Government Council, said the assailants killed one Christian. Others were wounded and treated at St. Mary's Catholic Hospital in Okpoga, she said.
"The Muslim Fulani herdsmen attacked our communities on June 7 and 8, killing one person, and carted away 40 cattle belonging to the Catholic Diocese at Ichama," Morning Star News reported Obeta said. "Many Christians, mostly children and women, have been forced out of their villages as their homes were destroyed."
On June 2 and 3, about 45 Christians were killed by armed Muslim Fulani herdsmen in Agatu Local Government Area, Christian leaders said.
On May 12, armed Muslim Fulani herdsmen in the Okpanchenyi and Ekwo Christian communities of Agatu killed 45 Christians.
Church leaders said a massive number of Muslim Fulani herdsmen invaded the area on the Sunday night and killed 38 people, while the others were killed in another attack in the early hours of the next day.
Later, Morning Star News said, authorities reportedly discovered that some of the assailants were dressed like Fulanis but were apparently hired assassins from out of state. Armed with AK-47s, the assailants invaded several communities, including an attack on a funeral, killing Christians and burning houses and church buildings, Christian le aders said.
Audu said that in the May attack, his village was destroyed.
"About 38 bodies of Christians murdered were recovered by us," Audu said. "Armed Muslim gunmen numbering over 700 invaded the communities, setting fire on houses in about five villages. They overpowered security men and started killing our people, and thousands of our people have been displaced."
Ngbede, the Agatu Christian leader who is also state Commissioner for Works and Transport, reportedly described the attacks as unprovoked and "an attempt to eliminate the people of the area."
In response, Garus Gololo, secretary of the state Miyetti Allah Cattle Rearers Association, reportedly said the herdsmen attacked in order to recover about 550 cows he claimed the Agatu people had stolen.