Arriving at St Joseph’s church in the Nigerian town of Gashua, Father John Bakeni knew he was taking on a tough posting. A flyblows settlement near the northern border with Niger, his new parish was smack in the heart of Boko Haram territory, and in the previous three years, all but a fraction of its 3,000-strong Christian minority had fled.
Sent by his bishop to show that the diocese had not deserted the town, he spent much of the following year trying to reassure the 200 remaining parishioners. But nearly every time he ventured from his rectory, a reminder would await him of the difficulty of his mission.
“Several times a week I would find a dead animal had been thrown in the compound, usually a chicken, goat or sheep, but sometimes dead cats too,” said Fr Bakeni, 38. “Stones would get thrown at the church almost every day, and sometimes also people would bang the gates and shout: ‘Infidel, we are going to kill you.’
“Almost every priest who had been posted to Gashua had the same experience, so I knew it was going to be hard. But I was not sad to leave.”
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Fr Bakeni’s mixed feelings about his time at St Joseph’s reflect a sense among Nigeria’s Christians of a losing battle in the north, where Boko Haram’s kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls is seen as part of a wider onslaught to drive them out for good.
With Muslims among the missing pupils as well as Christians, international reaction to the crisis has been to emphasise Nigeria as united in anger against a foe that targets both faiths with equal ferocity.
But the platitudes do not disguise the fact that Christians now feel particularly vulnerable in the north, where they form a small but highly visible minority that Boko Haram has specifically vowed to “eradicate.”
The threats have not proved idle. Christian groups estimate that up to a quarter of the 4,000 people killed by Boko Haram since 2009 have been Christians, and more than 700 churches have been attacked in the last seven years alone, according to the Nigerian Catholic Bishop’s Conference. Across the troubled north-east, many Christian neighbourhoods are now ghost towns as tens of thousands of residents flee south. It is one of the biggest Christian exoduses of the century, yet largely unremarked outside of Nigeria.
“The extent of the attacks, both physically and psychologically, is tantamount to a human rights disaster,” said John Pontifex, of Aid to the Church in Need, which campaigns for persecuted Christians worldwide.
“Nigerian Christians are undergoing some of the worst suffering the 21st century has seen, yet the world sees to turn a blind eye.”
While Boko Haram’s attacks are often terrifyingly indiscriminate, slaughtering entire villages seemingly at random, survivors frequently speak of a sectarian element. In one assault that killed 25 people in Ganye in north-east Adamawa state last year, Rifatu Bila, the wife of a local politician, was told at gunpoint that she would be spared if she converted to Islam.
“The gunman heard me praying and told me I would be freed if I accepted Mohammed,” said Mrs Bila, 50, whose house was set ablaze during the attack. “He then shot my husband dead in front of me.”
Mrs Bila was spared – as was “Andrew,” a wheelchair-bound employee of St Joseph’s Minor Seminary – a Catholic school elsewhere in Adamawa attacked in March. On both occasions, it seemed the only reason for the gunmen’s mercy was to create witnesses to their terror.
During the seminary attack, the gunmen wheeled Andrew around the campus, making him watch as they executed four of his colleagues and blew up the chapel and classrooms. He was also “interrogated” about his religion and warned that it put him in direct danger, according to Aid to the Church in Need, which documented the incident.
Similarly, Fr Bakeni buried four of his own parishioners murdered by Boko Haram during his eight month-stint at St Joseph’s, which ended last summer when he was called back to the diocese’s main city of Maiduguri. However, he said that the psychological intimidation alone was enough to make him realise why so many parishioners had fled.
“It was very frightening up there as the environment was so hostile,” said Fr Bakeni. “I found it made it hard to think clearly, so I would fall back on the sources of the Bible. It made me remember that Christians have always historically been persecuted.”
Most of missiles that landed in his compound were thrown by members of the al-majri – young male pupils of local madrassas who spend a two-year period being forced to live by begging for alms. The idea is to encourage self-reliance and remind youngsters of what it is to be poor. But in a part of Nigeria where most barely earn $1 per day anyway, critics say it simply creates a pool of impoverished street urchins who are easy recruits for Boko Haram.
Despite his ordeal, Fr Bakeni is at pains not to point the finger at Islam itself for the carnage wreaked by Boko Haram.
“Christians are under assault, yes,” he said. “But we have to be careful of giving a single narrative because Muslims have been affected too.”
However, not all of Nigeria’s Christians, who make up nearly half its 170 million population, are quite so prepared to turn the other cheek and feel no obligation to be diplomatic in their criticism.
“We are told Islam is a religion of peace, but wherever they are in the world, all I see is war,” said the Reverend Musa Asake, of the Christian Association of Nigeria, which often accuses the Nigerian government of not doing enough to protect Christians. “Christians have never retaliated to Boko Haram’s provocation, but it is beginning to be too much.”
Indeed, while Christians may never have retaliated directly to Boko Haram’s aggression, they have played their own part in communal violence. In the religiously mixed northern city of Jos, which is said to be an acronym for “Jesus our Saviour,” Christian-Muslim vendettas have cost several thousand lives in the last decade, spearheaded by Christian militias as much as Muslim ones. While the fighting there is as much about ethnic and land rivalries as religion, the situation is ripe for Boko Haram to exploit.
So too is the plight of the kidnapped schoolgirls – the majority of whom are believed to be Christian, and whose forced conversion to Islam has already caused widespread anger. For now, the likes of the Reverend Asake are prepared to leave retaliation against militant Islamists to the Nigerian government, or failing that, the “vengeance of God.” But if neither does the job, he warns of dire consequences one day.
“Even now, we still have no intention of fighting back,” he said. “But believe me, if the day ever comes that we do, Nigeria will be history as a nation.”