Lagos, Nigeria – On July 15, Reverend Fathers Donatus Cleophas and Mark Cheitnum were in the empty rectory of Christ the King parish in Yadin Garu, a town in the Southern Kaduna area of northwest Nigeria when five armed men walked in.
The gunmen confiscated the phones of both priests, who had stayed to celebrate mass after an ordination service in that diocese, and led them into the muddy grounds of a maize farm near the parish. There, Cheitnum was shot dead, and his body was left in the rain, while his colleague was taken away.
“We did not have any scuffle, nothing,” Cleophas, who has since regained his freedom, told Al Jazeera. “All I can think of is because maybe Father [Mark] was wearing canvas [shoes] and he could not keep up with the pace at which we were moving.”
According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), violence against Christians targeted on the basis of their religious identity has spiked, just as political violence against civilians has generally been on the rise too. Its data shows that attacks on Christians in the country increased by 21 percent in 2021 compared with 2020. On average, monthly attacks have also risen by over 25 percent in the last year.
In June, gunmen killed dozens at a Catholic church in Ondo, spotlighting a possibly religious undertone to the country’s insecurity. The state government blamed the ISIL-linked ISWAP (Islamic State in West Africa Province) for the incident, but the group is yet to claim responsibility.
Experts say attacks against the church are also increasingly targeting Christian leaders, as operations of armed groups nationwide assume dangerous dimensions. Indeed, between January 2020 and July 2022, there were 99 independent attacks against Nigerian clergy, ranging from abductions to outright murder, according to ACLED’s database which compiled records from local media reports.
“The data is a very vivid reflection of what is going on in our society [with regards to] the economic hardship and the booming kidnapping for ransom industry that we see today,” said Olajumoke Ayandele, a former ACLED researcher and currently a postdoctoral research fellow at New York University’s The Centre for the Study of Africa and the African Diaspora.
For the families of those who have lost loved ones to violence in Nigeria. (Psalm 34:18)
For the safety and security of Christian leaders in Nigeria. May they remain faithful in the protection of the Lord. (2 Thessalonians 3:3)
For the economic growth and development of Nigeria, that hardship may be overcome and replaced with growth and prosperity.