ROME — In light of the recent furor over Fiducia Supplicans (“Supplicating Trust”), a Dec. 18 Vatican declaration authorizing nonliturgical blessings of same-sex unions, one might almost be forgiven for thinking it’s a matter of life and death.

Of course, in truth that’s a merely rhetorical assertion. However important the doctrinal issues may be, nobody’s going to live or die depending on how they’re resolved.

On the other hand, the same cannot be said for the issue currently dominating Catholic discussion in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, which isn’t the theology of same-sex relationships or any of the other topics that often loom so large in Catholic debate in affluent societies.

Instead, it’s what a growing chorus of observers describe as a “genocide” directed against Christians in a country that has the largest mixed Muslim/Christian population in the world. According to some estimates, Nigeria now accounts for almost 90% of all Christians martyred worldwide each year. 

Flowers lie on caskets during a funeral Mass in the parish hall of St. Francis Xavier Church in Owo, Nigeria, June 17, 2022. The Mass was for some of the 40 victims killed in a June 5 attack by gunmen during Mass at the church. (OSV/Temilade Adelaja, Reuters)

In its latest annual report, Aid to the Church in Need, a papally sponsored foundation supporting persecuted Christians, reported that more than 7,600 Nigerian Christians had been murdered between January 2021 and June 2022.

Nigeria is merely an especially urgent case of a broader phenomenon. According to an annual report of “Open Doors,” an ecumenical watchdog group on anti-Christian persecution, more than 365 million Christians in the world, that is 1 in 7, faced high levels of persecution for their faith as of late 2023.

The threat to Christians in Nigeria has been clear for some time, but it’s been driven home of late in the wake of Christmas massacres in the country’s Plateau State that claimed the lives of more than 300 Christians.

The assaults have continued into the New Year. On Jan. 4, Boko Haram insurgents killed a pastor and at least 13 members of his Church, according to local news site “Sahara Reporters.” Pastor Elkanah Ayuba was the leader of a Church of Christ in Nations congregation.

While the violence is sometimes characterized as more social and economic than religious, pitting members of the Fulani ethnic group who are herdsmen against Igbo and Yoruba farmers and pastors, religion is inevitably part of the picture given that the Fulani are largely Muslim while their victims are mostly Christian.

In addition, there’s a clear pattern in the violence of targeting Christian churches, schools, residences, and other facilities.

Rebecca Agidi with her son, Oryiman, pictured in an undated photo in a camp for internally displaced persons in the Diocese of Makurdi, Nigeria. In September 2022, Agidi’s husband was killed and Oryiman was injured in an attack on the family's village by Fulani extremists. (OSV/courtesy ACN)

At least 52,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria since 2009, according to the International Society for Human Rights and the Rule of Law (“Intersociety”), an international monitoring group tracking genocide in Nigeria.

Last year, Fulani herdsmen were responsible for the deaths of at least 3,500 Christians, the group said.

The same report published in April also asserted that 18,000 Christian churches and 2,200 Christian schools have been set ablaze, and around 34,000 moderate Muslims also have been killed in Islamist attacks.

Within the same period, at least 707 Christians were kidnapped, out of which the Northern Nigerian Niger State recorded more than 200 abductions, including the March 14 abduction of more than 100 Christians in Adunu. Roughly 5 million Christians have been displaced and forced into Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps within Nigeria and refugee camps at regional and sub-regional borders, according to Intersociety.

The director of the Christian-inspired human rights organization said the genocide of Christians in Nigeria is being carried out with the complicity of the government.

“The government of Tinubu is part of the butchering machinery,” said Emeka Umeagbalasi, a criminologist and grassroots human rights and Democracy campaigner, referring to Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, who took office in late March.

“The Fulani jihadist rose to power under the Buhari administration and was able to take control of everything,” he said, asserting that Tinubu is set to perpetuate that heritage. The reference was to Nigeria’s previous government under former President Muhammadu Buhari.

Umeagbalasi said that international pressure should be brought to bear on the Tinubu administration if Nigerian Christians must be set on the way to freedom.

“The destiny of Nigerian Christians lies in the hands of international state actors and nonstate actors to pile enough pressure on the government of Nigeria and compel the government of Nigeria to do the needful,” Umeagbalasi told Crux.

The altar at St. Francis Xavier Church in Owo, Nigeria, on June 5, 2022, after worshippers were attacked by gunmen. (OSV/Temilade Adelaja, Reuters)

He said one way of compelling the government to act is by tying foreign aid to religious freedom. Otherwise, he said, “the killings are going to continue and with catastrophic consequences, including the total Islamization of the Middle Belt.”

Johan Viljoen, director of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute, an entity of the Southern Catholic Bishops’ Conference, recently said the Nigerian government is at fault for the mounting threats to Christians in the country and should be held accountable.

“Any foreign assistance or investment to Nigeria should be made conditional to the strict observance of human rights,” Viljoen said, insisting that victims of anti-Christian violence should receive financial compensation for property destroyed and lives lost.

“The Nigerian government should pay. It was, after all, the Nigerian government that failed to ensure the safety and security of its citizens — one of the prime duties of any national government,” he said. Viljoen blamed the government of new Tinubu for doing little to change the situation, noting that attacks have continued in Nigeria’s Middle Belt.

All this background, perhaps, makes a simple point for Catholics in the developed world, including the United States.

Yes, we may have issues around which great passions can be aroused, and their theological and sacramental significance shouldn’t be underestimated. At the same time, however, we can still go to Mass on Sunday without taking our lives into our hands — and, frankly, the same cannot be said of Catholics everywhere, a fact that perhaps deserves a greater claim on our attention.