Recent Muslim extremist attacks in an area of central Nigeria resulted in dozens of deaths and the closure of 10 Baptist churches, including one now used as a mosque, a denominational leader said.
The attacks in Plateau state's Mangu County by Fulani herdsmen and other terrorists included an assault on one village that killed 24 Christians, said Plateau Baptist Conference President Koeleh Kelvin Saleh. The raids drove 500 church members from 10 villages and resulted in the closure of a Baptist church in each community, he said.
"One of the church worship places in the affected Christian communities was converted into a mosque by the Muslim Fulani herdsmen who took over three communities," Pastor Saleh told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News.
An attack by herdsmen in Kantoma village on May 16 resulted in the slaughter of 24 members of Bethel Baptist Church, including Pastor Mangmwos Tangshak Daniel, while nine members of a Baptist church in Jwak Maitumbi village were killed, Pastor Saleh said.
"The sad thing is that, we didn't have a place to bury the corpses of our church members killed in the Kantoma attack, and so corpses were dumped in a mining pit," he said.
Officials feared that burying so many mutilated bodies would lead to further security threats, so church leader arranged for a mass burial in a neighboring area, he said.
"An understanding was brokered with the Mararaban Kantoma community, which is of another local government area, for these bodies to buried there," Pastor Saleh said. "Nobody was ready to release his land for such, and in fact the bodies littered the ground from morning to evening, and so when they searched and found a mining pit, an agreement was brokered with the community to push the bodies into the mining pit."
The burial of Pastor Daniel's body was carried out separately afterward, "so that it can be used as a contact from his family to other families who hadn't the opportunity to give the Christian rites of burial to their relations, because they were just pushed into a mining pit," he said.
"The mass burial was undertaken under tight security watch. It's so pathetic that while the burial was ongoing, the Muslim Fulani herdsmen were shooting at Christians at the burial site," he added. "The presence of police personnel who were at the burial site helped, because they also fired warning shots, which halted the attacks from the herdsmen."
The burial was completed hurriedly because of the herdsmen shootings, Pastor Saleh said.
"The Christians there lost a lot; the church was destroyed, and there's no single house standing in Kantoma – all houses of Christians have been destroyed," he said. "It's one of the communities where we had the largest Baptist church. The ruins of the community have been taken over by the herdsmen who now use the place to graze their cattle."
The herdsmen have also stolen windows and doors from destroyed homes, he said.
"The situation in Kantoma is horrible. Christians who survived the attacks have nowhere to return to," he said. "A few Christians who attempted to return there to salvage anything they can find in their destroyed houses had to be accompanied by security agents. And this they did hurriedly."
Accompanied by security agents, Pastor Saleh and other Christian leaders visited the affected areas and discovered that Fulani herdsmen had taken over three Christian communities, he said.
"In fact, one of the church buildings which served as a worship hall for Christians has been converted into a mosque," he said.
The attacks have created a serious humanitarian challenge to try to meet the needs of church members scattered to other areas.
"We've had an emergency meeting of the Plateau Baptist Conference in order to map out how we'll be able to reach out to the displaced Christians," Pastor Saleh said. "At the moment other unaffected churches have taken in the displaced Christians, and they're accommodated by some families and households."
The denomination has held emergency fund collections in churches for the displaced, he said.
"We've had to do this because most of the victims escaped with nothing except their lives," Pastor Saleh said. "Right now, we have about 75 families hosting the displaced members from the affected communities in their houses here in Jos. There are about 200 displaced people being cared for."
Baptist churches also raised 2 million naira (2,220USD), which along with a 1 million (1,110USD) naira gift was used to purchase food, blankets and mats for more than 100 displaced people in Mangu town and in other areas.
"We have also gone there and reached out to them with food items and clothing," he said.
Another center for displaced Baptist members in Barkin Ladi town provides aid to 35 families, he said.
"In Pankshin, the situation there is really pathetic – those who were displaced had to move into hostels at the Federal College of Education," Pastor Saleh said.
The 78 displaced people there include members of other denominations such as the Church of Christ in Nations (COCIN) and Assemblies of God.
"The Christians in Pankshin are those displaced from the axis of Wokshina, Panyam, and Gindiri areas," he said, adding that the camp there includes 44 children. "They need food, clothing, medical supplies and medicines. The needs are overwhelming, as the 3 million naira we raised is like a drop of water in an ocean. We are calling on spirited individuals all over the world to please come over to assist us. The sad reality is that no government institution has assisted these people in anyway."
The displaced hope to return to their communities and rebuild their houses, for which they'll need roofing sheets and other materials, but that depends on whether government can restore a safe living environment, he said.
"We've never as a church had it this bad in Plateau state," Pastor Saleh said. "The current attacks in Plateau state in the rural communities have affected the Baptist church immensely."
Nigeria remained the deadliest place in the world to follow Christ, with 4,118 people killed for their faith from Oct. 1, 2022 to Sept. 30, 2023, according to Open Doors' 2024 World Watch List (WWL) report. More kidnappings of Christians than in any other country also took place in Nigeria, with 3,300.
Nigeria was also the third highest country in number of attacks on churches and other Christian buildings such as hospitals, schools, and cemeteries, with 750, according to the report.
In the 2024 WWL of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, Nigeria was ranked No. 6, as it was in the previous year.
Numbering in the millions across Nigeria and the Sahel, predominantly Muslim Fulani comprise hundreds of clans of many different lineages who do not hold extremist views, but some Fulani do adhere to radical Islamist ideology, the United Kingdom's All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom or Belief (APPG) noted in a 2020 report.
"They adopt a comparable strategy to Boko Haram and ISWAP and demonstrate a clear intent to target Christians and potent symbols of Christian identity," the APPG report states.
Christian leaders in Nigeria have said they believe herdsmen attacks on Christian communities in Nigeria's Middle Belt are inspired by their desire to forcefully take over Christians' lands and impose Islam as desertification has made it difficult for them to sustain their herds.