Sadly, Nigeria has become known as the world’s center of Christian martyrs. In any given year, the numbers of Christians killed by extremist groups is rarely less than 4000 – often more than in the rest of the world combined. The anti-Christian violence is significantly localized in the north, where twelve Muslim majority states declared sharia law in 1999, resulting in huge numbers of Christians beginning to experience daily discrimination. But it was the rise of an extremist movement called Boko Haram, which first started its murderous attacks in 2009, that resulted in the Christians experiencing unprecedented violence.
According to an April 2023 report by the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law, at least 52,250 persecuted Christians have been killed in the past fourteen years, simply for the crime of being Christian. In the past five years, violence has spread southwards to the middle belt of Nigeria, with radicalized Fulani herdsmen killing Christians in order to grab their land. Boko Haram has now been joined by another extremist group operative in the area, called the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and both seek the eradication of Christianity from the northern states.
The violence has resulted in refugees now numbering over four million, mostly Christian farmers. The government of Nigeria has proved unwilling to condemn the levels of violence which some call genocidal, or inept in its attempts to engage and neutralize extremist movements.
President Muhammadu Buhari
“I have lived in Jos, in Northern Nigeria for over sixty years. There was always persecution, especially when the northern states declared sharia law in the 1990’s, but never did we think it would get to this terrible level, when we are in constant fear of our lives on a daily basis.”
A PASTOR IN NIGERIA
History of Christianity
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and its Christians are approximately three quarters Protestant, and one quarter Roman Catholic. The north of the country remains predominantly Muslim, but the Christian minority is considerable. For example, the northern eastern state of Borno is 30% Christian. Inevitably Christianity arrived in the country when traders from the Portuguese first arrived in the fifteenth century to find slaves, although Catholic priests later tried to outlaw the trade when they arrived in greater numbers in the seventeenth century.
Remarkably, when slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, many freed slaves became Christians and returned to Nigeria to preach the Gospel. Samuel Ajayi Crowther was the first African to be ordained Bishop by the Protestant Christian Missionary society and went to translate much of the Bible into the Yoruba language in the mid 1880’s. Christianity doubled in size to form move than half the population in the latter half of the 20th century and is projected to continue to grow – mainly due to demographic reasons – and become in 2050 the country with the third largest Christian population in the world, with 211 million believers.