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Fifty members of a northern Nigerian church were burned to death in their pastor’s house.
The attack by armed gunmen was only the first in a 12-village spree of violence that left over 100 dead in northern Nigeria’s Plateau State, a region that had previously been outside Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram’s operational area and is the largely Muslim Fulani tribesmen’s homeland.
Yet Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the attacks and threatened even more violence.
Open Doors, USA spokesman Jerry Dykstra says the recent wave of attacks is rapidly turning Nigeria into a deadly religious battlefield, where Boko Haram is declaring Christians must convert … or die.
“Nigeria is truly becoming the new killing field for Christians. Hundreds of Christians have already been brutally murdered – including women and children – by the Boko Haram,” Dykstra said. “The Boko Haram earlier this week said that all Christians need to turn to Islam or ‘they would never know peace again.’ Their goal is make all of Nigeria a country run and dominated by Shariah law.”
Church of Christ of Nigeria officials report that all of their denomination’s church buildings were burned to the ground in the 12-town rampage.
Plateau State is home to the nomadic and largely Muslim Fulani tribesmen, the group that some Nigerian security officials say was originally blamed for the attack.
Nigerian criminal justice consultant Innocent Chukwuma is reported as saying the logistics suggest that Boko Haram could not have acted alone.
“I don’t think that Boko Haram could, out of nowhere, have raided these villages. They couldn’t do that without local support and collaboration,” Chukwoma said according to the report.
Fulani spokesmen denied responsibility and had no response to a potential alliance with Boko Haram.
Heritage Foundation Africa analyst Morgan Roach leans against Boko Haram’s involvement because of the Fulani tribe’s violent track record.
“Attacks on Christian villages are not new in Plateau State, as Fulani tribesmen are known to have raided Christian communities in the past,” Roach said.
Roach says because Plateau State is out of Boko Haram’s normal territory, she tends to agree with Nigeria’s security officials. She also says these church burnings are a deviation from the terrorist group’s typically advanced methods.
“Should Boko Haram be responsible, this would deviate from its past tactics, which have tended to be more sophisticated,” Roach said.
“Two questions I think would be fair to ask: Is Boko Haram trying to capitalize on the instability in plateau and partner with Fulani tribesmen? Maybe, but I need more evidence,” Roach said. “If this incident is confirmed to be Boko Haram-related, it would be a worrying development for the country’s security.”
American Enterprise Institute Middle East and Terrorism analyst Michael Rubin, however, says he believes Boko Haram is responsible.
“No one should be surprised that Boko Haram’s range of actions is growing broader. Jihadists cannot be appeased; they are expansionists,” Rubin said.
Roach worries about the consequences if Boko Haram really is moving into the Plateau State and Fulani territory.
“Is Boko Haram looking to expand its influence throughout other parts of the country? It’s likely,” Roach said. “It would certainly jive with its ultimate objective to create an Islamic state.”
Dykstra believes Nigeria’s biggest need is to protect its Christian citizens and work on increased national security.
“The Nigerian government needs to step up and protect Christian worshippers,” Dykstra said. “Our State Department needs to recognize what is happening in Nigeria is not just from poverty and injustice.”
Dykstra was referring to a July 11 Reuters story on a World Council of Churches’ report on Nigeria.
“Poverty, inequality and injustice are threatening to trigger a broad sectarian conflict in Nigeria, an international Christian-Muslim task force said on Wednesday,” Reuters said, quoting from the report. “The report identified dozens of separate problems whose resolution could contribute to overall peace.”
Citing the WCC report, the Reuters story continued: “The wealth gap between the oil-producing states in the south and the resource-poor north was a leading factor in regional tensions, as were land disputes such as the lack of recognized grazing land for nomadic Fulani cattle herders.”
The report also quotes former Nigerian Justice Minister Prince Bola Ajibola saying, “In Nigeria, three things are intertwined – religion, politics and ethnicity – and the three are beclouded with corruption, poverty and insecurity.”
Dykstra disputes the report’s conclusions, including the statement blaming, “well-funded missionaries from both Islam and Christianity” for increasing tensions.
“How ridiculous,” Dykstra said.
Dykstra also says that Christians need to pray for their persecuted brothers and sisters.
Rubin warns that dire consequences will result if Nigeria’s government doesn’t put an end to Boko Haram’s self-announced civil war.
“If Boko Haram isn’t countered and defeated, they could transform Nigeria into the world’s largest failed state,” Rubin said.