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Gary Fallesen

Mission Moments: Nigeria

Along the fault line between Islam and Christianity


The Atlantika Mountains in Nigeria’s notorious northeast.

September 11 is a date that lives in infamy.

But four days before – on Sept. 7, 2001 – acts of terror were committed in Nigeria that elevated the animosity between Christians and Muslims to new and more disturbing heights. These stories went mostly unreported in the wake of attacks by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda on the United States.

“Nigeria’s troubles between Christians and Muslims began in the late 1960s, during the Biafran civil war, when Nigeria’s southeast seceded under the banner of Christian emancipation from the Muslim north,” journalist Eliza Griswold writes in The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam. “The divisions intensified in the 1980s, when the first oil boom collapsed and the ensuing economic downturn led to widespread violence. But it was really the end of military rule in 1999 and the political free–for–all of weak democracy that ignited religious violence.”

In 1999 and 2000, 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states implemented Islamic law. All 12 are located in the predominantly Muslim north. The south of Nigeria is considered Christian.

But Sept. 7, 2001 is the day “Nigeria’s religious crisis began,” according to Griswold, who wrote:
“On that Friday, a Christian woman walked through a group of Muslims who were praying with their foreheads to the ground outside a mosque full of worshipers. Her interruption was immediately seen as an act of disrespect, and, within hours Muslim and Christian mobs were attacking each other in the town of Jos. Thousands on both sides were killed, but the world, distracted by events in New York City, paid little attention.”
Such has been the case for most of the hideous acts of violence committed through the years in Nigeria. Boko Haram, a terrorist group that raised its ugly head around this time, has at times actually crossed the line of inhumanity far enough – such as when they kidnapped 200 schoolgirls in 2014 – to receive global attention.

But they are simply a symptom of a far greater ill.

Nigeria is one of those places straddling the 10th parallel north where two worlds collide. The mostly Muslim, Arab-influenced north meets a black African south inhabited by Christians and those who follow indigenous religions – which include those who venerate ancestors and the spirits of animals, land, and sky. Historically, this has been a spiritual battleground.

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” – Ephesians 6:12 (ESV)

Along the 10th parallel, Griswold writes, “the ‘state’ means very little; governments are alien structures that offer their people almost nothing in the way of services or political rights. This lack is especially pronounced where present-day national borders began as nothing more than lines sketched onto colonial maps. Other kinds of identity, consequently, come to the fore: religion above everything – even race or ethnicity – becomes a means to safeguard individual and collective security in this world and the next one.

“…along the 10th parallel, the Bible and the Quran play an integral part in peoples’ daily lives,” continues Griswold, whose father was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. “Scripture often provides a more practical rule of law than the government does. It lays out a social and moral code for human interaction. It gives meaning to suffering and poverty. It offers a group identity through which followers can secure their worldly needs, and, finally, find some certainty about the hereafter, about Providence.”

This is the heart of the Global South. There are now 493 million Christians living south of the 10th parallel – nearly one-quarter of the world’s Christian population of 2 billion. To the north live the majority of the Africa’s 367 million Muslims; representing nearly one-quarter of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

Today’s typical Protestant is an African woman, not a white American man.

In Nigeria, there are more than 90 million Christians (50.4 percent of the population) and about 78 million Muslims (43.3 percent of the country), according to the Joshua Project.

This is the front line of an ideological head-on collision, where Christians are seeking to accelerate Jesus’s return (Matthew 24:14) and Muslims believe what their ulamas (teachers) have taught about there being “no way that the whole world will not be Muslim.”

This clash produces various degrees of ugliness. But in a turn-the-other-cheek approach (Matthew 5:39), Pastor Chris Joseph of Climbing For Christ encourages “the church to show ardent commitment in their service to God and also to be ‘rapture ready’ in the face of persecution and violence.”

Chris’s teaching flies in the face of human nature, which has led to atrocities committed by both sides since 2001.

“Northern Nigeria has one of Africa’s oldest and most devout Islamic communities, which was galvanized, like many others, in the 1980s by the global Islamic reawakening that followed the Iranian Revolution,” Griswold writes. “In the eyes of many Muslims around the world, the Shah of Iran’s 1979 overthrow initiated a moment of global Islamic resurgence. The shah’s defeat was the West’s defeat.”

In Nigeria, Christianity is viewed as a Western religion. The name of the Muslim terrorist group Boko Haram (“Western Education Forbidden”) reflects the animosity bred here. In 2009, Boko Haram began small in Maiduguri, Borno State – launching riots over what, Griswold says, “they vaguely saw as the rising tide of Western influence. Fighting spread to three other states and left 700 dead.” Tens of thousands have died since.

It should be noted that many Christians in Nigeria feel abandoned by the West and, even worse, in some cases they feel threatened by a Western church that has embraced unimaginable sins and left believers in Africa to answer for these wayward decisions. “America tolerates God. Africa celebrates God,” a college professor is quoted as saying in The Tenth Parallel. “We’re called ‘the continent of darkness,’ but that’s when you appreciate the light. Jesus is the light.”

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” – Matthew 5:14 (ESV)

Climbing For Christ outreach to hill tribes (nearly 6 percent of Nigeria’s population practices ethnic religions, according to the Joshua Project) has been affected but not halted by the madness occurring in Nigeria’s northeast.


States of Nigeria.

On Sept. 7 – 14 years after the unofficial start of the religious crisis in Africa’s most populous country – Pastor Chris boarded a bus from the Rivers State, where his Lives Aglow Ministries is based, and began to head northeast. His destination for the seventh time in the last four years was the Koma Hills in Adamawa State. Adamawa is one of three states where Boko Haram has been carrying out its rabid assault against decency.

Muslim terror is fueled by bad economics (4 out of 10 Nigerians are unemployed) and an uneducated youth population that outgrows begging and is recruited into a ready-made army for misdeeds. As one human rights lawyer in Nigeria told Griswold: in the beginning the conflict in Nigeria had nothing whatsoever to do with religion. But all of that has changed under a banner of jihad. “The moment they can crush Christianity here, the country will fall,” a pastor in Nigeria’s Middle Belt has warned.

C4C first ventured into the Koma Hills at Chris’s invitation on Mission: Nigeria 2011. We passed through scores of military checkpoints – perhaps as many as 100 in less than 600 miles (about 930 kilometers). Danger was ever present (only two weeks after we visited the town of Yola, a terrorist attack was carried out against churches there, killing dozens).

But the expedition produced fruit.

Waneke, a village head who accepted Jesus during Mission: Nigeria 2011.

Daniel Comboni, a 19th century Catholic missionary from Italy who initiated work in Central Africa, first expressed the aim to “save Africa through Africans.” We find that approach admirable. Climbing For Christ has long sought to equip, encourage and empower indigenous workers for Gospel delivery.

So C4C sends Chris to reach the unreached among the hill tribes along the Cameroon border. Our prayers go with him.

The Word

“Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth.” – 3 John 1:8 (ESV)


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