God’s Country

Using militias and marketing strategies, Christianity and Islam are competing for believers by promising Nigerians prosperity in this world as well as salvation in the next. A report from the front lines

One Tuesday at 7 a.m. in Yelwa, about 70 people were praying their morning devotions at the Church of Christ in Nigeria (founded by none other than the fiery Kumm himself). It was in February 2004, about a year after the elders had issued their edict that no Christian woman was to be seen with a Muslim man. As the worshippers finished their prayers, they heard gunshots and a call from the loudspeakers of the mosque next door: “Allahu Akhbar, let us go for jihad.” “We were terrified,” recalled Pastor Sunday, who had been standing outside the gate as the churchyard swarmed with strangers. He stayed near the church gate, but many other people fled toward the road behind the church. There, men dressed in military fatigues reassured them that they were safe and herded them back to the church. Then the men opened fire.

Pastor Sunday fled; that’s why he survived. The attackers—who were not, in fact, Nigerian soldiers—set the church on fire and killed everyone who tried to escape. They chased the head of the church, Pastor Sampson Bukar, to his house next door and ran him through with cutlasses. They set fire to the nursery school and the pastor’s house. During my first visit to Yelwa in the summer of 2006, his burned Peugeot was still outside. The church had been rebuilt and painted salmon pink. Boys were playing soccer, each wearing only one shoe so that everyone could kick the ball. “Seven in my family were killed,” said Sunday as we sat in the churchyard. “We call them martyrs.” He pointed to a mound of earth not far from where we were sitting. On top was a small wooden cross: it marked the mass grave for the 78 people killed that day.

Nigeria
THE FAITHFUL father at the Redeemed Church of Christ, outside Lagos

“This is about religious intolerance,” he went on. “Our God is different than the Muslim God … If he were the same God, we wouldn’t fight.” For Pastor Sunday, the clash was millenarian and grounded in the literal words of Christian scripture. “The Bible says in Matthew 24, the time will come when they will pursue us in our churches,” he said. Matthew 24 foretells the Tribulation: the war that will precede Armageddon and the final coming of Jesus.

A few hundred yards down the road from the church, there’s a cornfield. In it, a row of mounds: more  mass graves. White signs tally the dead below in green paint: 110, 50, 65, 100, 55, 25, 60, 20, 40, 105. Two months after the church was razed, Christian men and boys surrounded Yelwa. Many were bare-chested; others wore shirts on which they’d reportedly pinned white name tags identifying them as members of the Christian Association of Nigeria, an umbrella organization founded in the 1970s to give Christians a collective and unified voice as strong as that of Muslims. Each tag had a number instead of a name: a code, it seemed, for identification. They attacked the town. According to Human Rights Watch, 660 Muslims were massacred over the course of the next two days, including the patients in the Al-Amin clinic. Twelve mosques and 300 houses went up in flames. Young girls were marched to a nearby Christian town and forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. Many were raped, and 50 were killed.

Yelwa was still a ghost town of sorts in August 2006. In block after burned-out block, people camped in what used to be their homes. The road was lined with more than a dozen ruined mosques and churches, but the rubble was hidden in hip-high elephant grass; canary-yellow morning glories climbed the old foundations. When I arrived at the home of Abdullahi, the Muslim human-rights lawyer, his street was mostly deserted. He stooped on his way out of a low-ceilinged hut. Behind him, I could see the sour faces of a man and woman sitting on the floor by his desk. “Marital dispute,” he explained.

It was the rainy season, so I waited out the noon deluge in another small hut on his compound. Finally, Abdullahi ducked inside, a worn accordion file under his arm. His wife followed, carrying a pot of hot spaghetti. In the beginning, he explained, the conflict in Nigeria had nothing whatsoever to do with religion. “Let me give myself as a case study,” Abdullahi said. He went to Christian mission schools and federal college, and never, as a Muslim, had any problem. “Throughout this period, I’d never seen religious segregation, because at that time the societal value system was intact. We were taught to respect each other’s beliefs and customs.” But as the population grew and resources shrank, people began to fight over who had the right to the land and its resources—who belonged as an indigene, and who didn’t.

Nigeria
ABDULLAHI ABDULLAHI, a 55-year-old Muslim lawyer and community leader, stands at the burial ground of massacred Muslims in Yelwa.

Abdullahi has attempted to bring several cases of ethnic abuse to the government’s attention, but as with the church massacre, the government has done little to investigate or to try those involved. He handed me a folder with depositions from one such case. As I read them, Abdullahi returned with two young women, Hamamatu Danladi and Yasira Ibrahim, who had survived the incident detailed in the files. Danladi met my eye as she stood in the doorway; Ibrahim, with long upturned lashes and a moon face, didn’t. Abdullahi invited the women in, lowered his head, and left.

During the Christian attack, the two young women took shelter in an elder’s guarded home. On the second day, the Christian militia arrived at the house. They were covered in red and blue paint and were wearing those numbered white name tags. The Christians first killed the guards, then chose among the women. With others, the two young women were marched toward the Christian village. “They were killing children on the road,” Danladi said. Outside the elementary school, her abductor grabbed hold of two Muslim boys she knew, 9 and 10 years old. Along with other men, he took a machete to them until they were in pieces, then wrapped the pieces in a rubber tire and set it on fire.

When Danladi and Ibrahim reached their captors’ village, they were forced to drink alcohol and to eat pork and dog meat. Although she was obviously pregnant, Danladi’s abductor repeatedly raped her during the next four days. After a month, the police fetched Danladi and Ibrahim from the Christian village and took them to the camp where most of the town’s Muslim residents had fled. There, the two young women were reunited with their husbands. They never discussed what happened in the bush.

“The Christians don’t want us here because they don’t like our religion,” Danladi said. “Do you really think they took you because of your religion?” I asked. The women looked at each other. “In Islamic history, there are times when believers and nonbelievers have fought,” Danladi said. “We think what happened here is part of the clash that will come. After the clash, people will see poverty and suffering and that’s what’s happening now. According to our ulamas [teachers], there is no way that the whole world will not be Muslim.”

Later, I looked up Matthew 24, the verses that Pastor Sunday had cited. In many versions of the Bible, Jesus’ words are inked in red to show that these are the exact and inerrant words of the Lord. Down the rice-paper page, one red verse (Matthew 24:19) caught my eye: “But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days!” I thought of Hamamatu Danladi. After her rape, she told me, she didn’t give birth for four more months, which meant she carried that child for more than a year. Maybe I didn’t understand her. When I returned to visit her a year later, I asked again if I’d misunderstood. No, she said, she’d carried the baby for more than a year. Maybe, she thought, he simply refused to come into this world during the conflagration.

At the time of the massacre, Archbishop Peter Akinola was the president of the Christian Association of  Nigeria, whose membership was implicated in the killings. He has since lost his bid for another term but, as primate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, he is still the leader of 18 million Anglicans. He is a colleague of my father, who was the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in America from 1997 to 2006. But the American Episcopals’ election of an openly homosexual bishop in 2003, which Archbishop Akinola denounced as “satanic,” created distance between them. When I arrived in 2006 in the capital of Abuja to see the archbishop, his office door was locked. Its complicated buzzing-in system was malfunctioning, and he was trapped inside. Finally, after several minutes, the angry buzzes stopped and I could hear a man behind the door rise and come across the floor. The archbishop, in a pale-blue pantsuit and a darker-blue crushed-velvet hat, opened the door.

“My views on Islam are well known: I have nothing more to say,” he said, as we sat down. Archbishop Akinola has repeatedly spoken critically about Islam and liberal Western Protestants, and he was understandably wary of my motives for asking his thoughts. For Akinola, the relationship between liberal Protestants and Islam is straightforward: if Western Christians abandon conservative morals, then the global Church will be weakened in its struggle against Islam. “When you have this attack on Christians in Yelwa, and there are no arrests, Christians become dhimmi, the vocabulary within Islam that allows Christians and Jews to be seen as second-class citizens. You are subject to the Muslims. You have no rights.”

When asked if those wearing name tags that read “Christian Association of Nigeria” had been sent to the Muslim part of Yelwa, the archbishop grinned. “No comment,” he said. “No Christian would pray for violence, but it would be utterly naive to sweep this issue of Islam under the carpet.” He went on, “I’m not out to combat anybody. I’m only doing what the Holy Spirit tells me to do. I’m living my faith, practicing and preaching that Jesus Christ is the one and only way to God, and they respect me for it. They know where we stand. I’ve said before: let no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence.”

Archbishop Akinola, 63, is a Yoruba, a member of an ethnic group from southwestern Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims coexist peacefully. But the archbishop’s understanding of Islam was forged by his experience in the north, where he watched the persecution of a Christian minority. He was more interested during our interview, though, in talking about the West than about Nigeria.

“People are thinking that Islam is an issue in Africa and Asia, but you in the West are sitting on explosives.” What people in the West don’t understand, he said, “is that what Islam failed to accomplish by the sword in the eighth century, it’s trying to do by immigration so that Muslims become citizens and demand their rights. A Muslim man has four wives; the wives have four or five children each. This is how they turned Christians into a minority in North Africa.”

He went on, “The West has thrown God out, and Islam is filling that vacuum for you, and now your Christian heritage is being destroyed … You people are so afraid of being accused of being Islam-phobic. Consequently everyone recedes and says nothing … Over the years, Christians have been so naive—avoiding politics, economics, and the military because they’re dirty business. The missionaries taught that. Dress in tatters. Wear your bedroom slippers. Be poor. But Christians are beginning to wake up to the fact that money isn’t evil, the love of money is, and it isn’t wrong to have some of it. Neither is politics.”

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