Nigeria's Christians fear further attacks

Christian villagers near Jos, Nigeria, fear further attacks by militants who systematically killed 500, mainly women and children.

A Release investigation has heard claims that the attack in March was planned and soldiers were ordered not to intervene. Some observers believe the aim is to drive out Christians to pave the way for Islamic law.

In the early hours of the morning on March 7, militants attacked three villages near Jos, the capital of Nigeria’s predominantly Christian Plateau State.

More than 500 people were methodically slaughtered, many of them women and children.

"When they came, they ringed the whole village and started shooting guns," Pastor Bitrus Daniel, whose church and home were destroyed, told Release.

"Some were holding knives, some were holding guns, and some were holding fire. They were just burning houses, killing people… They ringed the whole place, and everybody was running."

The village of Dogo Nahawa lost just over a quarter of its 1,200 population on March 7. In all, 520 were killed at Dogo and in the neighbouring villages, Zot and Rastat. All are buried in an unmarked mass grave in the fields. A 400-strong mob of Hausa and Fulani tribesmen have been blamed for the attack.

Naomi Dung and her husband Dung Gwom were woken by the sound of gunshots. ‘My husband went out to see what was happening. He ran to the church, and was killed.

"The attackers were killing some children outside our house. My neighbour’s children, four of them, ran into our house. I heard the Fulanis say: ‘Burn this house!’, ‘Burn that house!’, and ‘leave this one!’ So they left our house alone. We have never before seen so many dead bodies."

Naomi now has to care for her five children on her own. She is scared for the future, fearing the attackers may return. ‘On March 7 they did not kill many men, and the rumour is that they are coming back for the men.’

The Archbishop of Jos, Benjamin Kwashi, claims there is evidence the massacre was carefully planned. "These attacks are systematic, they are organised," he told Release.

"[The attackers] knew where to cut to inflict maximum pain and painful death, for men, for women, for children. That takes training."

The 400-strong mob also knew how to avoid the military curfew. Only those with special passes are allowed to travel after 9pm. "How did they know the routes?" asked Archbishop Kwashi, "How did they beat the military curfew?"

Release also spoke to witnesses who claimed soldiers had been ordered not to intervene to prevent the massacre.

Pastor Bitrus Daniel of COCIN (Church of Christ in Nigeria) said he talked to one soldier who had heard gunshots and screams. The soldier reported the disturbance to his superior who in turn contacted the commanding officer in charge of peacekeeping.

But the commanding officer allegedly instructed the soldiers not to intervene, and the soldier who had raised the question was beaten about the head with a rifle butt.

"They nearly killed him," said Pastor Daniel, who claimed the troops just allowed the attacks take place. "The soldiers didn’t do anything. We have no confidence in them."

Another COCIN pastor, Jerry Datim, also alleges the commanding officer knew of the attacks, but kept his soldiers back. The pastor tried to phone the commanding officer, but got no reply, so sent a text. ‘I said: “There is a problem going on in Dogo Nahawa, people have been attacked, killed… Please can you send the soldiers immediately to take care of the situation?”

It took an hour for the commander to respond with a cursory 'Who are you?’ Pastor Datim begged the commanding officer to send troops to defend the villages, but the commander did not reply and switched off his phone.

In the weeks following the massacre, other Christians have been the victims of what they claim is indiscriminate shooting by soldiers. And there have been alleged cases of extra-judicial killings.

Some Christian leaders are warning of an Islamic agenda to take over the Plateau.

Rev Dr Pandang Yamsat is President of COCIN. "Since 2001 about 20 pastors from my church have been killed; about 150 churches have been destroyed.

"The church on the Plateau has been under attack by Muslims, for the simple reason that they want to occupy the Plateau.

"Up to ninety-five per cent of the people on the Plateau are Christians, and they want to cripple that number… so they will become the majority and thereby gain control. If they gain control, they will then begin to introduce Islamic law."

The Archbishop of Jos, Benjamin Kwashi, described the situation as a continuing "crisis".

Since 1994 there has been steady, calculated persecution of Christians. Many hundreds of lives have been lost. Since 2001 about 56,000 people have been killed on the Plateau.

It’s not only Christians that have been killed. Some claim the latest attacks were reprisals for an assault against Muslims in January, but the facts of that incident are less clear than has been reported. Release has heard evidence that facts have been distorted to falsely portray Christians as equal co-aggressors. This has been done in order to justify attacks against the Christian community.

The actual picture is more complex. The clashes in Nigeria are along tribal as well as religious lines; some may have been acting in self-defence, and criminal elements are also involved.

"Criminality has become a good business," added Archbishop Kwashi, "Looting, destroying, killing… People have not been arrested; they’ve not been jailed, so criminality has become a business, and the Government is unable to arrest and punish people for their crimes.

"I’m praying that through these difficult times God will restrain Christians from acting foolishly, from thinking of revenge, from taking retaliation and from doing things that will not glorify God.

"Christians on the Plateau must not lose focus on the vision and mission of the church: to bring good to all people, to bring health to all people, and to demonstrate the love of God and the love of the Lord Jesus Christ to all humanity."

Release joins with Archbishop Kwashi in urging Christians worldwide to pray for the people of Plateau State.

"Pray for increased and effective security – for all of Plateau’s citizens, be they Christian or Muslim," said Release CEO Andy Dipper. "And please pray for Release’s partners in Nigeria as they work tirelessly to provide aid and support for persecuted Christians."