ROME — Angelenos who followed the recent drama of Bishop Moses Chikwe in Nigeria, who spent 15 years in Southern California before returning home last year, and who was kidnapped just after Christmas and then released by still-unidentified gunmen, may have been surprised to hear how dangerous it actually is to be a Christian in Nigeria.

After all, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, and it absolutely pulsates with Christian energy. It’s the largest Christian nation in Africa, too, with some 80 million believers, and levels of faith and practice are off the charts. According to the Pew Research Center, a staggering 89% of Nigerian Christians attend church services at least once a week, one of the highest shares in the world; in the U.S., by way of comparison, it’s about 40%.

Move around any Nigerian city, and you’ll see billboards advertising the “Church of Jesus Christ Militant” and the “Mighty Miracles of the Holy Ghost Temple,” and you’ll see sprawling megachurches dominating skylines. 

Attend any Sunday Mass in the country, and you’ll wonder if you’re at a church or a daycare center, because young people are literally hanging from the rafters. Spend five minutes in casual conversation with any randomly chosen Nigerian Christian, and if you don’t hear at least one reference to God, Jesus, miracles, or the devil, you should play the lottery that day because your longshots are coming home.

Nigeria is sort of like the Texas of Africa, in that the national motto might as well be “go big or go home.” Nigerians tend to be voluble, enthusiastic, and deeply passionate about whatever they do, and Nigerian Christianity is no exception.

So, if all that’s true, then why is Nigeria also a killing zone for Christians, statistically perhaps the single most dangerous place on the planet to be a Christian?

The numbers tell a grisly tale: According to Genocide Watch, a nonpartisan watchdog group, some 11,500 Christians have been killed in Nigeria since 2015, meaning 2,300 a year, which translates into roughly one new Christian martyr every four hours. Some 4 to 5 million Christians are believed to be internally displaced.

In all likelihood, such violence killed more Nigerians in 2020 than the coronavirus, since to date the total death count from the pandemic in Nigeria is 1,373, well below the annual average for Christian fatalities. In other words, you could make the argument that anti-Christian persecution is Nigeria’s real pandemic.

Prelates lead a protest over unending killings of Nigerians in Abuja, Nigeria, March 1, 2020. Nigerian bishops called on the international community to help the West African country in its fight against ethnic insecurity and terrorist groups such as Boko Haram. (Catholic News Service/Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters)

How to explain this scourge in a nation with such a vast Christian footprint?

First, despite their numbers, Christians are only about half the Nigerian population. Most of the rest are Muslims, which makes Nigeria by far the world’s nation with a roughly evenly divided Muslim and Christian population. As one Nigeria imam told me years ago, that makes the country “like Saudi Arabia and the Vatican rolled into one.”

For the most part, those Christians and Muslims live in genuine harmony, and stories of marriages and friendships across the religious lines are legion. Yet there is a segment of the Islamic population, like everywhere, which has become steadily radicalized over the past generation, most prominently producing the infamous Boko Haram terrorist group.

Boko Haram isn’t driven simply by anti-Christian animus, since they also routinely attack the institutions of a state they regard as corrupt and illegitimate. Nevertheless, the group is explicitly committed to turning Nigeria into an Islamic caliphate with no room for religious diversity, which makes Christians targets almost by definition.

Moreover, Nigeria is also a land of contradictions, with vast wealth in some sectors of society resting cheek-by-jowl with grinding poverty. There are myriad unresolved tensions in the country, some of them stemming from the Biafra War in the late 1960s, when a largely Christian region of southern Nigeria attempted to secede from a Muslim-dominated government in the north.

Some stem from unresolved land use disputes, as is the case in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region. There, Fulani herdsmen seeking new grazing land for their livestock, often due to desertification and soil degradation, routinely come into conflict with farmers, understandably motivated to protect their crops and incomes. For decades the Nigerian government has failed to resolve these disputes, often prompting people to take matters into their own hands.

There are also persistent ethnic fractures in Nigeria, often along tribal lines, and those ancient rivalries can easily make a difficult situation worse.

In all those cases, and others, when one of the groups in conflict is largely Muslim and the other Christian, it’s easy to take religious affiliation as a sign of complicity in one’s perceived grievances. It’s also easy for religious passion to inflame pre-existing tensions and to provide a sacred warrant for violence.

Moreover, sometimes violence against Christians has no explicitly religious motive at all. Kidnapping has become a cottage industry for criminal bands in Nigeria, and often Christian pastors are targets of preference, along with politicians and business leaders, on the theory they represent institutions with deep pockets who’ll pay to get them back.

It’s important to note that Christians aren’t the only victims of Nigeria’s contradictions. In all likelihood, the majority of Boko Haram’s victims are fellow Muslims, including Muslim law-enforcement officers and members of the armed forces attempting to break the group’s back and to protect the country’s Christian population. In many ways, the violence against Christians is an index of the country’s wider challenges.

However, none of that means a great deal to Christians living with the risk of physical harassment, displacement, or even death. Experts may nitpick about which incidents are really “religious,” but the real question is why Christians such as Bishop Chikwe — who obviously had other choices — are willing to bear these risks in order to serve their Church and their nation.

Such fidelity clearly merits admiration, but it deserves something more, too, beginning with the resolve not to forget, and not to look away.