Why is Nigeria the deadliest place to live as a Christian?

Amina lost her husband and one of her children in an attack by Boko Haram in 2012. Then five years later, she was one of 10 Christian women abducted by Boko Haram and held for eight months before being freed by government forces.(Photo: Open Doors International)

Over the space of one year, around 3,600 Christians were murdered because of their faith in Northern Nigeria. That number has almost trebled from the previous year. What is happening? Zara Sarvarian of Christian anti-persecution charity Open Doors UK & Ireland explains.

Amina's everyday routine of setting a table for lunch for her family was disrupted by a crash at the door. The house shook, their world – too, as fighters of the Islamic group Boko Haram broke into the house.

Heavily armed, they pushed Amina's husband and four of their children outside and instructed them to deny Christ, threatening them with knives. When the family refused to do so, the fighters savagely killed Amina's husband and one child in front of her. The three other children were also attacked and were taken to hospital – thankfully, they survived.

That was in 2012. Not yet recovered from her trauma, Amina faced Boko Haram in another incident five years later. She was travelling on the bus in Maiduguri state when it was attacked by Boko Haram militants. After checking that the passengers were Christian, they killed all of the men and abducted eleven women including Amina to Sambisa Forest.

The women stayed there for eight months, living with physical and psychological trauma, hunger and fear. Every day, they were forced to listen to the preaching of a visiting imam. They were often pressured to become Muslim and to marry fighters. Amina was eventually released by government forces.

"It's persecution. They kill us because we are Christian," says Amina.

"Violence is still increasing in Nigeria, especially in northern Nigeria. Attacks happen every day.

"Boko Haram attack our villages, our communities. Fulani herdsmen attack our people in their farms.

"The government says this is not true, but we are there living it and we know it is true!"

Amina's experience is one of thousands of cases happening in Nigeria daily. Although there has always been rivalry between the Muslim north and the Christian south since the country's independence in 1960, it has intensified in recent years through the radical Islamist movement Boko Haram.

In recent years, they have carried out many violent attacks against Christians in the northern states, resulting in widespread killings, a huge number of people forced to flee from their villages, and the destruction of churches.

Amina with her late husband who was killed in front of her by Boko Haram militants along with one of their children.(Photo: Open Doors International)

Another threat comes from the Fulani herdsmen, a nomadic Muslim tribe dispersed across West and Central Africa. In Nigeria, the Fulani are mainly found in the northern and central regions; the president, Muhammadu Buhari, is from a Fulani background.

As the frontier of the Sahara Desert has moved south, Fulani cattle herds have gradually been pushed towards Nigeria's "Middle Belt". Traditionally a farming region, the advancing Fulani-owned herds have increasingly taken over Christian-owned land through violent means.

The government has failed to decisively tackle these problems. Some critics accuse the current regime of secretly siding with Islamic extremists and allowing them to continue their reign of terror with impunity.

According to research by Open Doors, a charity advocating for persecuted Christians, the number of Christians killed in Nigeria in a 12-month period measured during 2018/19 was 1350. In the subsequent year 2019/20 the number of the killings is dramatically higher.

In the newly-published World Watch List 2021, an Open Doors ranking of 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, Nigeria has entered top 10 for the first time since 2015.

Henrietta Blyth, the CEO of Open Doors UK, said: "If violence were the only criterion we used in our research, Nigeria would be number one. Last year 3,530 Christians in Nigeria were slaughtered for their faith.

"That means that on average 10 Christians in Nigeria are murdered for their faith every single day. Our figures show that those killings peaked during the months of lockdown between April and September."

It may seem counter-intuitive, but over the last year, the Covid-19 factor exacerbated the violence against Christian communities in various ways. Despite the imposition of a Covid-19 lockdown, attacks by Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen continued. People were confined to their villages while the attackers could move about freely and continued their attacks with impunity. According to Open Doors researchers, this was a deliberate strategy from the armed groups.

A very specific form of violence against Christians are the raids on small Christian communities in the rural areas of various states. When a Christian community is attacked, some of the residents are killed, others are wounded and abducted. Many flee from their houses and fields.

Who they chose to kill or kidnap are deliberate choices too.

When a husband or son is killed, it leaves the mother and the younger children behind in a state of great vulnerability. A wife or daughter abducted leaves a man left to imagine what might be happening to them.

One example is Boko Haram's assault on Kwaragilum village in Borno State in January 2020. They killed 26 people and abducted six Christian women.

In April 2020, Fulani militants killed 13 Christians and kidnapped 13 others in attacks in Kaduna State. More than 1,000 people were displaced from their homes.

In May, at least seventeen people were killed and six were injured during the attacks on three villages in Kaduna state by Fulani herdsmen. Food stores were destroyed, and homes were burnt in a predominantly Baptist community. Survivors later reported that a neighbouring Fulani community, which had been in the area for 40 years, had quietly left the night before the attack occurred.

It isn't just the killing that has mushroomed in the last year: 990 Christians were recorded to have been abducted in the last year – up from 224 the year before. One thousand Christians were reported raped or sexually harassed (up from 450). One thousand houses and as many shops were attacked, damaged, burnt, bombed or looted for faith-related reasons.

Still grieving for the loss of her family members, Amina proudly remembers that even under the threat of being stabbed, her husband was praying aloud. His voice of steadfast courage gives her strength to move forward.

Open Doors partners with the local church to encourage and provide various support to persecuted Christians through discipleship and persecution survival training, education and community development projects, emergency relief and trauma care.  Amina is one them.