December 18, 2015
The Church's Enemy Number One: Boko Haram
The only thing I was thinking when they took me is that I will die,” says a young, soft-spoken woman in a dimly lit room in Nigeria. “I know they will kill me. I’m just praying to God about everything that I did that is wrong, that the good Lord will forgive me.”
Mary Patrick, 24, began that evening happily. It was September 2014, and Patrick, her older sister and two friends were walking to a nearby village to attend a wedding. One of her friends was the bride-to-be.
As they walked, they suddenly heard gunfire and shouts of “Allahu akbar!”
Islamic extremists from the group Boko Haram stormed their Christian village in Adamawa State in Northeastern Nigeria. The women quickly hid in a nearby house, but were captured when they misjudged a chance to escape.
The moment Patrick arrived at the terrorist camp in another part of Adamawa State, soldiers began chipping away at her Christian identity. They shaved her head, forced her to wear a hijab, gave her an Arabic name and made her recite verses from the Quran.
“I just forgot how to pray, how to read the Bible,” she says. “When I was with Boko Haram, the only thing was Muslim prayer.”
Patrick quickly found herself behaving like other young women in the camp, some of whom were the “Chibok girls”—the girls made internationally famous through the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign.
Those girls, from a town in Borno State where Boko Haram is based, were abducted by the militant group in April 2014. Although some managed to escape, 219 reportedly remain in captivity.
Patrick says the more than 50 Chibok girls she encountered were among the most vicious prisoners in the camp.
“The [Boko Haram] train women,” she says. “They even taught how to shoot a gun, how to kill somebody, bomb places like churches, wood houses and schools.”
Women are told these attacks are the work of God. Patrick herself took part in multiple attacks, including one on her own church. She tried to shoot away from people.
She watched as militants tied her sister to a tree and shot her to death—her punishment for declining to slit the throat of an elderly man who refused to renounce his Christian faith. Patrick also watched as her friend—abducted on her wedding day—and her friend’s younger sister were married to Boko Haram commanders.
Patrick was set to marry the man who killed her sister. This same soldier was one of the numerous fighters who repeatedly raped her.
“Sometimes five men at the same time,” she says. “After this one, this one.”
The Rise of Terror
Thanks to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the atrocities of Boko Haram largely go unnoticed in terms of international attention. But in reality, Boko Haram poses as much of a threat—or more—to Christians as the more famous terrorist group. In fact, in March, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS, helping spread the bloody fight for a global caliphate to West Africa.
Boko Haram formed in 2002, but gained prominence in 2009 after the death of its founding leader, Mohammed Yusuf. Since then, the group has slaughtered at least 17,500 people, though many estimate the actual death toll could be three to five times higher than what is reported. Experts say the group killed more than 10,000 people in 2014 alone—close to the number of civilian deaths in Iraq linked to ISIS in 2014.
Many sources estimate Boko Haram also has forced more than 2 million people from their homes. These numbers show a force that may be smaller than ISIS (many place the number of Boko Haram fighters at about 9,000), but at least as deadly—and willing to employ an unparalleled level of brutality.
An African envoy to the United Nations even pled with global leaders to make Boko Haram the number one target among the international community.
“I think boko haram is more dangerous than ISIS. What we do for ISIS, We should do against Boko Haram.” — Chad’s ambassador to the U.N.
“I think Boko Haram is more dangerous than ISIS,” said Mahamat Cherif, the ambassador from Chad. “What we do for ISIS, we should do against Boko Haram.”
Christians make up more than 50 percent of Nigeria’s 182 million people, according to Christian research group the Joshua Project. More than 43 percent of the population is Muslim, while the remaining percentage is composed of those practicing ethnic religions.
Boko Haram’s attacks have primarily taken place in the Muslim-dominated North, but some fear it is establishing more of a presence in the Christian South.
The group claimed responsibility for two bombings on June 25, 2014, in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city and commercial center, located in the Southern part of the country.
And while Boko Haram has killed Muslims—often for not practicing the faith to the standards it believes are dictated by the Quran—it mainly targets Christians.
Most attacks take place at night in Christian villages, but the group also burns churches or sends suicide bombers—often young women like Patrick—into Sunday morning church services.
Because of such attacks, it’s common to see armed guards checking vehicles as they enter church grounds in the North.
With the election of Muhammadu Buhari, who took office May 29, much of the country hopes the government will start fighting back more powerfully against Boko Haram. Many Christians voted for Buhari because of his experience as a major general in the Nigerian Army. He previously obtained power in the mid-1980s by leading a military coup.
The president before Buhari, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, was seen as weak in the fight against Boko Haram during most of his presidency—though he did eventually win support from neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon, forming a coalition that recaptured districts under Boko Haram’s control just before he left office.
Despite the confidence in Buhari’s forceful words against Boko Haram at the polls, some Christians are closely watching his actions now that he’s in power. He ran on a platform promoting freedom of religion throughout Nigeria, but he has previously supported the total implementation of Sharia law.
Buhari pledged to rescue the Chibok girls during his election campaign, and in September, he said he’s willing to negotiate for their release.
After months of military strikes on Boko Haram camps, he also said Boko Haram was limited to its stronghold in the Sambisa Forest in Borno State. Just days before this announcement, however, Nigeria’s Intelligence Agency claimed 12 Boko Haram fighters were arrested in Lagos.
Forgiving the Enemy
Nigerian Christians largely don’t fight back against Boko Haram. For one, they simply don’t have the proper weapons, and most of the attacks happen by surprise at night. This isn’t a war against the Church—it’s a massacre.
In response, Christians can only remain firm in their faith. After all, when under a surprise attack in the middle of the night, their faith is all they have.
“If you go to Nigerians and ask, ‘Will you die for Christ?’ they would say no,” says the Rev. Isaac Oluwole Newton-Wusu, a director for Voice of the Martyrs in Nigeria. “But look at how many Nigerians have died for Christ. When the time comes, the courage comes.”
For thousands of Christians, that time comes all too soon.
While women like Patrick are often abducted by Boko Haram, men, if they’re not killed, often have a hand and foot cut off from opposite sides of their body—a Quranic punishment for those who wage war against Islam.
In a video released in 2013, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said: “We will kill because Allah says we should decapitate, we should amputate limbs, we should mutilate.”
Thirty-five-year-old Micah Magaji survived such an attack while walking through his village with his wife, Dorcas, in Taraba State on the morning of December 18, 2014.
A group of Boko Haram soldiers surrounded them, demanding they convert to Islam. The couple could deny Christ and live, or affirm their faith and die.
“We were born into a Christian family,” Magaji told the attackers. “We are still Christians today. There is no way we are going to turn around from our past.”
The men threatened to cut off Magaji’s hands and kill him if he didn’t renounce his faith.
“Only God can take a life,” he responded. “It is from God, so you cannot take my life.”
The attackers then attempted to intimidate Dorcas, but she remained unfazed.
“I’m married to a Christian,” she told them. “Wherever my husband goes, that is where I’ll go. I’m not changing from this faith to any other.”
Her response angered the men. They shot her to death, while another went after Magaji with a machete, hacking at both of his forearms before leaving him for dead.
When elders in their village learned of the attack, they sent people to rescue Magaji.
“It is the power of God that has kept me up to this point,” he says now.
Still, the attack put Magaji in a rehabilitation hospital for two months. Doctors had to amputate his right arm and perform surgery to save his left.
Before the attackers left Magaji to die, they stole his cellphone—a common practice in such attacks. After receiving his initial care at the hospital, Magaji borrowed a phone to call the attackers who had taken his.
“I told them, ‘You people thought you have killed me, but my God has saved me,’” he says.
Surprisingly, he adds, the attacker who answered apologized.
“I am a Christian,” Magaji told him. “I don’t bear grudges. I don’t keep records of wrongs. I have already forgiven you.”
At the time of the attack, Magaji and Dorcas had been married for more than 20 years. He misses her deeply.
He also hopes his left arm will heal so he can continue his work as a yam farmer to provide for his five children.
“I’d love prayer for God to strengthen and heal, not only me, but people in similar situations elsewhere,” he says. “My prayer is that this hand will heal completely and I will go back to the work God has given me.”
Since the rise of Boko Haram, attacks on Christians like Magaji have increased dramatically. And with virtually half of Nigeria in serious risk of being attacked at any moment, groups such as Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) focus a large portion of their work on helping victims receive quality care and support to heal physically and emotionally.
In fact, the attacks on Christians are so ubiquitously brutal that VOM now employs the only prosthetist in Northern Nigeria because of the regular need for prosthetic limbs for victims of Boko Haram and other Muslim extremists.
A Weary Church
Wale Omu, 48 (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), once pastored two churches in Borno State, each with about 275 members. Boko Haram bombed both, the first in December 2012 and the other in October 2014.
Seven people were killed in the attacks. Those deaths, plus the members of his congregations who have been killed in additional attacks on villages, brings the number of congregants Omu has lost to 42. Many more have left the churches to escape further violence.
“They had to desert the town,” he says. “Most of them lost both their church and houses, so they had to leave—and they lost members of their family.”
A pastor since 1993, Omu now struggles to provide for his children, seven of whom are still living at home.
“Life has been so difficult, because, since the attack, I was left penniless—I don’t have anything,” he says. “We have to struggle to go to farm and do some farm labor to be able to get food. Then my major concern is the care of my children, that they go to school again because of the condition I am in.”
The bombings and the burning of his home are only the most recent times Omu has been persecuted for his faith. Boko Haram fighters previously visited him at church and threatened to kill him if he didn’t convert to Islam.
As the attackers held a knife to his throat, a gunshot fired outside the church and they fled. During another attack, he was hit with a machete on his head, neck and back.
Omu says his main source of comfort has been that Jesus said this would happen. And since persecution is certainly taking place, he reasons that surely, Christ’s other promises are true, as well.
“The Bible said definitely ‘In this life, there will be persecution. You will be killed for my sake,’” Omu says, referencing Matthew 24:9. “I was really comforted in this.”
He felt discouraged after losing his churches and his home, but Omu knows God is still in control.
“It really hurts a lot, but the Word of God always comforts me,” he says. “I just worshipped Him more. I was happy because God saved my life.”
Omu is proof, however, that Boko Haram can only hurt part of him. Apart from the pain and devastation the terrorist group brought him, the reverend feels a bit of satisfaction.
“The joy I feel is that none of my members converted to Islam,” he says.
At this point, Omu doesn’t fear another Boko Haram attack. In fact, he has prayed on several occasions to meet with members of the militant group.
He won’t let hatred toward the fighters enter his heart. For him, hatred would make him more like Boko Haram and less like Christ.
“My work is not to kill, my work is to pray,” he says. “I pray that God will touch their hearts and convert them.”
A New Level of Depravity
Boko Haram’s violence has inspired imitators. Nomadic Muslims from neighboring countries Chad, Niger and Cameroon have been known to conduct raids as they pass through Nigeria. Muslim Fulani herdsmen have carried out some of the most brutal attacks in recent years, and some Nigerian Christians claim the herdsmen are supported by Boko Haram.
In March 2010, Fulani herdsmen attacked the Christian village of Dogo Nahawa outside Jos, a city near the center of Nigeria, killing 500 people—mainly women and children—in one night.
Attackers reached a new level of depravity when more than 1,000 armed men, reportedly disguised as herdsmen, surrounded the Nunkwo village in Taraba State on Jan. 28, attacking Christians. Twenty-three villagers died. Boko Haram’s level of involvement in the attack is unclear, though it would be difficult to deny.
As survivors of the attack counted the dead, they suddenly heard shrieks coming from one of the bodies. They discovered Danjuma Shakaru, a 13 year old who had his right eye carved out, his genitals cut off and his left hand nearly amputated.
Fortunately, Shakaru only remembers feeling the machete slice through the left side of his head, falling to the ground and watching his attackers run off to set homes on fire. The attackers returned to his limp body to do further damage.
Shakaru was so brutally maimed that villagers dug a grave for him after he was rushed to the hospital.
But he still lives. Light from an open window highlights his many scars. He’s wearing a brightly colored shirt with the word “Kids” sewn on the front. Instead of pants, he’s wearing a Nigerian cloth wrap around his waist so a medical worker can follow up on wounds sustained during the attack.
In spite of what he has suffered, Shakaru remains certain that God is still in control. He has no anger toward his attackers.
“There is no problem,” he says. “I have allowed God to handle everything.
“I forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing,” he says, echoing the words of Christ on the cross. “If they had love, they wouldn’t behave that way.”
Prior to the raid, Shakaru was a typical Nigerian boy. He lived with his mother, a widow, and enjoyed playing with friends. He often went on fishing trips with fishermen from his village. It was after one of these trips that the attack occurred.
Shakaru’s life is much different now. A catheter extends from his lower abdomen, draining urine into a bag he carries as he walks. Because of the trauma he experienced to his head and right eye, he also lost the use of his left eye. He is fully dependent on God, on his mother and on the care of others around him.
Although the attackers stole so much from Shakaru, they couldn’t take his joy, which is still evident on his face and in his voice.
“The joy comes from the Lord,” he says, smiling.
He wants those who hear his story to pray that his faith will continue to grow. “If they hear the story, they should pray for me—for my broken heart,” he says, “and that I have strength to serve the Lord.”
A Foreign Enemy
The deadliest enemy facing the church in Africa is Boko Haram. But another enemy is strangling the church in the country—and this one isn’t native.
Boko Haram’s attacks test the limits of the church in the North, but they also reveal a disconnect with many churches in the South. Pastors in the North need more support from churches in the rest of the country, but the prosperity gospel—a theological Ponzi scheme that promises God’s blessings in exchange for donations—drowns out their need.
Pastor Peter Agabi (whose name has been changed to protect his identity) says Boko Haram is revealing a serious threat to the Nigerian church: disunity.
“The church is so divided,” he says. “There is no visible unity of the body of Christ in Nigeria. That dismays me at times. Sometimes, it makes me grieve more than the threat of Boko Haram does.”
A drive through cities in the South showcases billboards displaying brightly colored images of pastors in fancy suits with promises of “signs and wonders” and “prosperity in exchange for praise” in bold letters.
Churches in the South regularly take donations for their leaders to buy private jets—even as pastors in the North risk their lives daily to meet the needs of persecuted brothers and sisters. Terror spreads in the North; the prosperity gospel spreads in the South.
“Their churches are absolute cathedrals,” Agabi says. “While so many ordinary Nigerians are poor, those preachers are bathing in luxury. Church has become their business. The size of the building and the vehicle the preacher drives now serve as the yardsticks of their church’s success.
“How can we ever give a witness for Christ if we carry on like this? The unity that Jesus speaks of in Scripture is nowhere to be seen.”
Recovery Is Far Off
After four nightmarish months as a captive of Boko Haram, Mary Patrick saw an opportunity to escape from her captors.
One night, when the soldiers were drunk, she and an older woman fled into the bush.
Upon returning to her village, she learned her father had died of a heart attack after the abduction of his daughters. Patrick was completely alone.
She now lives with a friend named Afam Onwenu as she undergoes counseling and returns to university studies.
When his family took her in, Onwenu realized the depths of the horror Patrick faced.
“I wanted to buy food for her and bought some meat,” he says. “She told me she couldn’t eat the meat. She said, ‘In the camp, they used to eat human flesh, so every meat looks like human flesh.’”
Patrick is now free and still trying to recover pieces of herself stolen by Boko Haram, but her biggest concern isn’t herself anymore. It’s her brothers and sisters in Christ who suffer everything she did and worse—all for believing in Jesus Christ.
“I would be grateful to have other people pray for Christians in Northeastern Nigeria,” she says, “because they are suffering the most.”