EU Bishops highlight religious dimension of Christmas massacre in Nigeria

Lisa Zengarini.

February 12, 2024.

Vatican News.

Original Article.

The Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) welcomes a recent European resolution condemning the 2023 Christmas massacre in Nigeria, but laments that the text downplays the religious causes of the violence.

The European bishops have reiterated their grave concern over the persecution faced by Christian communities in Nigeria, and have called on the EU institutions to give a more incisive response to Islamist terrorism in the African nation.

In an urgency resolution adopted last week, the European Parliament (MEP) strongly condemned the Christmas massacre committed in December 2023 by Muslim Fulani militants in more than 160 villages in the Bokkos, Barkin Ladi, and Magu authority areas of Plateau State, in central Nigeria.

The European Parliament resolution on the Christmas massacre

In the attacks, in which eight churches were reportedly burned down, at least 200 Christians were killed, more than 300 suffered injuries, and several left without a home. The violence reportedly displaced some 15,000 people.

In the adopted resolution, MEPs highlighted “the role of climate change, competition for scarce resources, and the disappearance of effective mediation schemes” in the conflict between mainly Christian farmers and Muslim Fulani herders.

Systematic terrorist attacks on Christians by Fulani extremists

While welcoming the resolution, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), objected that the text downplays  the religious dimension of the incident, and its terrorist nature as highlighted by the Nigerian bishops according to whom the “continued havoc caused by armed herdsmen in various parts of our country, can no longer be treated as mere clash between pastoralists and farmers” but should be treated “as acts of terrorism.”

“Environmental  and economic pressures,” echoed Father Manuel Barrios Prieto, the General Secretary of COMECE, “cannot sufficiently explain the ferocity of the attacks and their coordinated and systematic patterns committed by Fulani Islamist terrorists.”

Indeed, the 2023 Christmas Eve attacks are not isolated cases. Amid growing security challenges, ranging from Islamist terrorism to banditry, Christians are particularly targeted and vulnerable in Nigeria.

COMECE recalled that a January 2024 attack, Fulani infiltrated terrorists killed more than 30 persons, and destroyed several houses and worship centres. Last September, seminarian Na’Aman Danlami Stephen from the Diocese of Kafanchan was burned to death in a heinous terror attack. In addition, over 2 million Christians in Benue State have been internally displaced due to violence.

Impunity of perpetrators

The  European Parliament had already denounced in May 2020 that “over 6,000 Christians have been murdered since 2015 by jihadist groups or have perished as a result of the ‘your land or your blood’ policy carried out by Fulani militants”.

The perpetrators of these crimes, including jihadists, enjoy impunity, as they are rarely prosecuted and condemned. According to Fr. Barrios Prieto, “It should no longer be tolerated that all these crimes remain unaccountable. The Nigerian government has a responsibility to protect its citizens, including systematically persecuted Christian communities”.

Need for more incisive measures from the European Union

COMECE, therefore urgently called upon the European Union to take “robust measures in line with its legislation and employ diplomatic channels to ensure the protection of all citizens in Nigeria.” In this context, it said, the EU Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief and the EU Special Representative for Human Rights could also give a valuable contribution.

COMECE had already called on the international community to stop the growing persecution of Christians in Nigeria  in 2020. In May 2023, the Bishops’ Commission  received Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah  of Sokoto, and facilitated a dialogue meeting with representatives from the EU and its Member States.

Christians vulnerable to terrorism and general insecurity in Nigeria

Nigeria, which has been confronted with a myriad of security challenges, ranging from Islamist terrorism to banditry for years, remains the deadliest place for Christians to live, as confirmed recently by  Open Door,  the international advocacy organization supporting persecuted Christians and Churches worldwide.

In 2021, 90% of all Christians worldwide who were killed for their faith were in Nigeria. On average 14 Nigerian Christians die every day. One of the major security threats facing Christians is the Islamist  Boko Haram insurgency which has been ravaging Nigeria since 2009. These terrorists vehemently oppose Western education, viewing it as a symbol of corruption and moral decay.

The scourge of kidnappings for ransom

The scourge of kidnapping for ransom also remains a pervasive threat for the Church. Priests and religious are regularly kidnapped by bandits. The most recent incident occurred early in February when two Claretians (Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) were abducted in Plateau State by some armed men. They were released a few days later.