Archive for May, 2014

Boko Haram: ‘Kill the father, rape the mother, orphan the children, and destroy the church’

 

The day after 9/11, Time Magazine’s senior editor Nancy Gibbs wrote: ‘If you want to humble an empire, it makes sense to maim its cathedrals.’ The scale of Boko Haram’s terror in Nigeria is far wider than the gruesome attacks on the United States in 2001. While the world cries out about the group’s abduction of over 200 girls from a school in Chiboko, Boko Haram sticks to its plan to destroy the Christian community as part of its objective to overthrow the government and turn Nigeria into an Islamic state. Nigeria’s cathedrals are not buildings, but Christian families.

 

Terror works like a tornado. The threat is there, but when it strikes, it does so with little to no warning and destroys anything and anyone in its path. The lives of survivors are cut in two: a life ‘before’ and a life ‘after’. The morning of Sunday 26 January, 2014 was as ordinary as ever in the little town of Chakawa in Adamawa state, Northern Nigeria. Even though Adamawa is one of the three states in North East Nigeria, considered to be the home of Boko Haram, there was no evidence that a disaster was about to hit the Christian community.

The attackers had done their homework. Whether they received help from the inside or infiltrated the village prior to that dreadful Sunday is unknown. Regardless of how they got their information, the ‘hundreds’ (according to eye witnesses) of Boko Haram members knew where they needed to go, which houses belonged to Christians and which belonged to Muslim families. The attack started by surrounding the local Roman Catholic church.

‘Outside, other terrorists eagerly awaited them and gunned down as many fleeing people as they could.’

Then, the assailants forced themselves into the building and started to open fire on the worshippers. Others carried long knives and slit the throats of the church members, who desperately tried to escape from the building through any door or window that would open. Outside, other terrorists eagerly awaited them and gunned down as many fleeing people as they could. Some were able to escape the mayhem, but many of these were heavily wounded and succumbed to their wounds in the bushes.

“We don’t want to hear this name ‘Jesus’,” one Boko Haram member was heard saying. “But if you insist, you will die with the name today! No more singing today! You will all sing in your graves, you useless Christians!” In fact, many dying Christians did call out to Jesus in their final moments.

52 Christians died that day, a few others passed away in a hospital later. Dozens of others were heavily injured. Many houses were looted and set ablaze. The BBC and other renowned media wrote about the victims once and that was it. The next day this ‘random attack and mindless killing in Nigeria’ was a short paragraph in the world’s universal history book, despite the fact that the survivors continued to lack food, shelter, clothing and other daily necessities.

Boko Haram chooses its prey, and fellow Muslims who oppose the group or help the victims earn a place on the ‘to be killed list’.

The Chakawa massacre is far from ‘random’ and surely not ‘mindless’. “Boko Haram wants to wipe out Christianity,” Reverend Father Moses Tafarke, head of the Christian Association of Adamawa, told Open Doors in the days after the attack. “Not only in Chakawa, but in the entire region. The magnitude of the attack combined with the looting and destruction of Christian homes proves that Christians were definitely singled out.”

“All the believers in Chakawa are in a very difficult situation. They are counting their losses, there is no food, and no clothing left for them. They are now living in a primary school. Others have relocated to be with their relatives in other villages, and children are left in pain, women without husbands. In fact, it is the worst image I have ever seen in my life,” said Moses.

Visiting the area is dangerous not only for Christians, but for government officials as well. They too know that the attacks are not ‘mindless’. Boko Haram chooses its prey and Muslims who oppose the group or help the victims earn a place on the ‘to be killed list’. Nigeria’s federal government under the leadership of Christian president Goodluck Jonathan has promised several times now that the extremist insurgency will be over soon and security will be restored. But his cabinet, his government, his army and police are deeply divided. Many are accused of sympathizing with Boko Haram’s cause; others complain about their low wages and are easily corrupted.

 

How can the church deal with all this suffering in an atmosphere of immense fear?

Based on their actions, Boko Haram’s slogan could be: ‘Kill the fathers, rape the mothers, orphan the children, and destroy the church.’ In Chakawa, most of the slaughtered were men. Women are considered to be weak. Letting them live in all their pain and grief deeply affects the Christian community. However, ‘only’ taking away the husbands is not enough.

New research commissioned by Open Doors has shown that Boko Haram has turned to gender-based violence as part of its tactics. In their report ‘Our Bodies, Their Battleground: Boko Haram and Gender-Based Violence against Christian women and children in North-Eastern Nigeria since 1999’ the researchers show how tremendously effective it is to focus attacks on women and girls – because the knock-on effects are devastating to the Christian community. “Within their culture, survivors of sexual crime often bear the stigma of their attack, especially those who become pregnant or contract HIV/AIDS subsequent to the assault. Entire families and Christian communities are thus ‘dishonoured’, regularly leading husbands to reject wives who are victims of rape, with all the consequences for their children,” say the authors.

Fatherless families, families with dishonoured mothers and daughters, deeply troubled children; how can the church deal with all this suffering in an atmosphere of immense fear? People still go to church, but women are advised to leave their handbags at home, just so that others are absolutely sure they are not hiding a weapon or bringing a bomb to church. Entering a church is much like entering an airplane or government building in other countries. At some churches, the Christians need to pass through metal detectors before they can find a seat.

‘Nobody opened the door for us. It was really disheartening.’

For Open Doors workers ministering in these circumstances in a way that helps and not make things worse  is really difficult. Throwing out ‘comforting’ Bible verses to deeply hurt people is not helpful at all. Visiting the Christians is always our first priority. In the case of Chakawa, that was very difficult, says field worker ‘Isaac’*. “I first went to see church leaders in the area, but they were hard to find. Nobody would give us any directions because we were strangers. And when we located the church leaders, they also didn’t want to open the door until they were really sure we were Christians who had come to help them. It was really disheartening, but finally, we were allowed in and brotherly conversations commenced. We spoke about the situation and how we could give practical assistance by supplying food, clothes and other goods.”

Next, Isaac and his companion had to travel almost 200 kilometers to the village. “A terrorizing experience,” recalls Isaac. “The security was so tough… At some point we were sent back. The road was closed, because the air force was bombing one of Boko Haram’s hideouts. Besides this, my friend was beaten because we brought a camera. The soldier wasn’t happy about that.”

When they finally arrived, their visit was much welcomed. Reverend Father Tafarke said, “This is what the love of Christ entails. This meeting is like Jesus himself coming into the situation. We feel loved and cared for. Coming to this tense side of the world to see and encourage us is wonderful.”

 

‘We must kill hatred with the guns of love.’

Despite the tragedy, Tafarke points to love as the only power that can overcome this ongoing, relentless terrorism. “We have become lambs to be slaughtered at any given time by the enemies of the Gospel; yet, we shall continue to uplift the name of Jesus Christ. It is time to show love to our enemies. And who knows? The terrorist might be defeated through love. What weapons of mass destruction cannot achieve, love can. We could make a resolve of revenge, but of what value will it be? We must kill hatred with the guns of love. Of course we are thrown into mourning, but we pray that the blood of these martyrs will not go in vain. Christianity has come to stay in northern Nigeria. The church is marching on.”

Brave words, but the terror continues with women and children being specific targets. The abduction of the 230 girls in Chiboko is just a short chapter in Boko Haram’s dreadful book. The many Christians who have deep scars on their souls have more questions than answers. However, over time, their pain will grow less. Over time, they will be able to feel joy again. Over time, God will stop the violence. For now, they just need to pray and hold onto God’s rich promises: He keeps the martyrs in front of His throne (Revelation 6), He heals the brokenhearted (Psalm 147), He is a Father to the fatherless and a protector of widows (Psalm 68) and the gates of hell will not overcome the church that is built on Jesus Christ (Matthew 16).

 

*Name changed for security reasons

Boko Haram’s attacks on Christian communities in Nigeria are not random and mindless, but are actually planned and orchestrated to scar the lives of survivors forever. Pray that God will heal the victims, that God will build his church on the seeds of the martyrs and pray that God will change the hearts of Boko Haram and other Muslim extremists.

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