'Crying Outside the Corridors of Power'

Friday, November 17, 2000

Christians Face Persecution and Constant Opposition in Nigeria's Kebbi State

by Geoff Stamp

BIRNIN KEBBI, Nigeria -- "If you want to save your lives, don't show this film again."

This was the warning made to the Great Commission team after they had shown the Jesus film in Birnin Kebbi, capital of Nigeria's Kebbi state. Kebbi, along with several other northern Nigerian states, has adopted "sharia" (Islamic law) to operate above the local and national legal systems.

The Great Commission team, which is an arm of Campus Crusade for Christ that specializes in showing the "Jesus" film to rural and often illiterate audiences, felt they had no option but to pack up and go, so serious was the threat.

"The fact is that we have been experiencing persecution here for years without people in Lagos or the outside world being aware of it. It is only now, with the imposition of sharia, that the outside world is taking any notice of the plight of the churches in our northern states," said Rev. Canon Duke Akamisoko, Canon in residence at St. Luke's Anglican Cathedral in Birnin Kebbi.

"Part of the problem is that the Christians have no representation in the local government. The authorities are 100 percent Muslim, and when we raise our voices in protest at what goes on, we are just crying outside the corridors of power," he said.

Letters of protest to the authorities go unanswered. Requests for land upon which to build a school are denied. A request last July for airtime to broadcast a Christian religious program has still not been answered.

"All the schools teach from an Islamic perspective. We want our children to be taught from a Christian perspective, but we are not allowed to teach Christianity in the state schools, and we are not encouraged to provide Christian teaching for our own children," said Canon Akamisoko.

"We have the right to raise our children as Christians, but the authorities are blocking all our attempts. We are like second-class citizens in our own country."

Inside the cathedral compound, squeezed against the compound wall, is the shell of a new building funded entirely by the church, which will house the first Christian primary school in Birnin Kebbi.

"We have already started a nursery school for 70 children. The new primary school will have five classes, each with 25 pupils. We now have more applications than there are places," he said.

"I went to see the governor and said to him, 'If you were in my home state, we would not withhold your right to teach your children according to Islam. Why then do you oppose our attempts to teach our children Christianity?' There has still been no change in the policy."

In July and August on behalf of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Canon Akamisoko wrote letters to the authorities protesting the consequences of the imposition of sharia.

"Our children are denied the teaching of Christian religious knowledge right from primary school level," he said in a letter to the executive governor of Kebbie state, Mohammed Adamu Aliero. "We are denied access to land to build our churches. ... Christians are harassed and ejected from rented houses and shops because they are Christians. ... We have been denied access to state-owned media. ... Christian students and staff in schools are often persecuted because of their faith."

However, Canon Akamisoko does not feel that sharia in itself is the biggest problem. In some cases, sharia has been operating unofficially for years. He feels that if Muslims respect sharia more than the state law, then it could prove to be beneficial. But when sharia is used to manipulate and oppress non-Muslims, it becomes a dangerous weapon.

"What really pains my heart, however, is the lack of reaction to what is going on by the national authorities," said Canon Akamisoko. "When there is an injustice against Muslims, the national politicians supporting them are quick to speak out. We have Christians in powerful positions, including the national president, yet none of them has taken a stand on this issue."

Many Christians living and working in the northern, Muslim-dominated states feel isolated and abandoned, and there are other difficulties.

"Many of the local church leaders have very scant knowledge of the Bible," said Canon Akamisoko. "We need to offer courses that will deepen their knowledge and help them to understand their position and rights in representing their congregations," he said. It is partly this lack of training that prevents church leaders from adequately representing their congregations against oppression by the authorities.

Another need is for Scriptures. Bibles are in great demand, in English and in Hausa. But in the rural villages, illiteracy is almost 100 percent.

"Something needs to be done about this. That is why we want to access the television or radio so that we can promote the Bible and Bible teaching," said Canon Akamisoko.

Mission work for any church is a great problem in the Birnin Kebbi region. Any missionary activity must move quickly or risk retaliation from Muslim extremists who are "volatile and aggressive."

If a Muslim converts to Christianity, he becomes a target and can lose his life. Muslim leaders will call the convert's father and tell him that he must be the first one to stone his own son. Some people have reconverted to Islam after pressure from the local people, which is encouraged by the authorities.

When Muslims accept Christianity, they are abandoned by the authorities, according to Canon Akamisoko. They will be refused fresh water or community aid, and eventually they will have to reconvert in order to receive these amenities again.

"Part of the problem is that the Christians cannot speak for themselves. If we do any mission work, we have to help the people by giving them schools, water and health facilities. But here in Birnin Kebbi, we can hardly generate our own resources -- the Christians are too poor," he said.

He added that there was a need for consistent and substantial support from outside, or offering people the gospel would be like asking them to choose between the difficult life they already live and a life of persecution and sometimes starvation under the present regime.

"It is not comfortable to live here at all. You face a lot of secret denial and find a lot of what you want to do is blocked. The persecution is not made widely known, and the authorities don't want it publicized, but we want people outside to know about it so that maybe something can be done."

Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.