NCR | Nina Shea | January 11, 2020
An ongoing Islamic extremist project to exterminate Christians in sub-Saharan Africa is even more brutal and more consequential for the Church than it is in the Middle East, the place where Christians suffered ISIS “genocide,” as the U.S. government officially designated. A growing number of these African countries are seeing the rise of ISIS- and al-Qaida affiliates, and non-state terrorists like them, who specifically target Christians in their quest to establish Islamist rule.
These African churches are the youngest Church communities, whose exponential growth has prompted the Vatican and others to see Africa as “the beacon of hope for the Church.” Data released in 2019 by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary show, for the first time, Africa as the continent with the most Christians, numbering 631 million, surpassing even Latin America. Whereas a hundred years ago, there were barely 2 million Catholics on the continent, now there are 230 million. But the bright future of African Christianity is imperiled by a fast-growing and violently intolerant Islamist trend, and the plight of these persecuted Christians has received far too little attention from the Western governments, NGOs and the media.
No place in sub-Sahara is more notorious for religious hostility against Christians than Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. Over the last decade, more Christians have been deliberately murdered by Islamic extremists in Nigeria’s northern and central belts than in all the Middle East combined.
In the north, Boko Haram is the biggest scourge of Nigerian Christians. Founded in 2009, that group, whose name means “secular education is forbidden,” works to violently suppress all ideas and areas of knowledge outside of Islam. In its range of operations in rural northern Nigeria, the state governments already enforce sharia (Islamic) law, but Boko Haram aims to establish an Islamic state.
Under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State, Boko Haram split into two factions. One is officially affiliated with ISIS and is referred to as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). The other, known as the Shekau faction, swore fealty to ISIS but was rejected because it would not give up killing Muslims who stood in their way.
Regarding their treatment and view of Christians, there is no difference between the two factions. In one video rant, Shekau leader Abubakar Shekau declares: “This religion of Christianity you’re practicing is not the religion of God. It’s paganism. We are trying to coerce you to embrace Islam because that is what God instructed us to do.”
Both employ extremely bloody and cruel tactics to accomplish this forced conversion of the Christians who account for nearly half of Nigeria’s population. Boko Haram’s open boasts about its abduction of Christian girls for sexual enslavement and coerced conversion to Islam impressed ISIS, which, in 2014, cited Boko Haram’s practice admiringly in its early fatwas blessing the practice of sexual enslavement of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria. One example of this horrific practice has garnered some Western attention, thanks to the activism of her mother, Rebecca: Leah Sharibu was kidnapped from her school in Dapchi village by jihadists with 109 other schoolgirls in February 2018. Because the 14-year-old refused to renounce her Christian faith — “I am a Christian,” she courageously told the armed captors surrounding her in the jungle, recounted her schoolmates — she was taken as a slave for sexual abuse by the militants, while the others were freed.