Nigeria: Threats Force Northern Church Underground

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Converts from Islam in Borno state disperse -- only to come together again.

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria, September 26 (Compass Direct News) -- Death threats and other dangers here drove most of the members of a church of converts from Islam to other parts of northern Nigeria -- yet a fellowship remains.

Of the 25 converts who formed a church in this city in the northeastern state of Borno two years ago, only three remain. Still, while worshipping separately in the towns where they now reside, once a month the converts brave the threats of Islamic extremists and family members to return to Maiduguri to secretly pray and praise together.

“The venue and time is agreed among themselves, and the venue is also changed every meeting so that they are not attacked,” said the Rev. Titus Dama Pona, founder of Good Way Mission, who planted the church, Kanuri Christian Fellowship, in September 2005.

Pona is the pastor of the only known underground fellowship in Nigeria, a group said to be the first church among the Kanuri and Shuwa Arab ethnic groups in the Islamic enclave of Borno. The state served as the gateway of Islam into Nigeria in the 12th century.

Three out of the 25 converts, Pona said, are training in theological institutions with the hope of reaching their own people with the gospel.

The Rev. Joshua Adamu, 67-year-old chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Borno chapter, gave thanks for Pona’s ability to preach to, train and support the Kanuri people.

“For the first time, we have a fellowship that is bringing Kanuri converts from Islam together,” Adamu said. “And this has been possible because of the ministry of Rev. Pona. He has the gift of reaching Muslims with the gospel.”

For church members Mohammed Modu, Ma’aji Kalli and Ali Gana, going underground has been a matter of life or death; their families have been searching for them with intent to kill.

Kalli and Gana have spent the last two years in hiding from their parents.

“I saw salvation in Christianity, which was not available in Islam,” said Gana, whom Pona baptized at an Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA) service in Maiduguri in November 2006.

Another member of the church, Allahbeh Chibok, lost his wife and children after he converted. She divorced him based on his conversion, Pona said, abandoning him and their three daughters, and married a Muslim man. Then she died, Pona said, and her parents in collaboration with some Muslim extremists abducted the daughters.

Parental rejection upon conversion, however, is not always inevitable. The Muslim father of church member Baba Aji helped him escape from Islamic attackers because, Pona said, his father loved him in spite of his conversion.

Pastor’s Price

Pona’s success in taking the gospel to these Islamic-dominated ethnic groups has come with its own price. Last year he escaped death when Muslim extremists broke into his home.

Pona said two armed Muslim extremists stormed his residence in the Hulolori area of Maiduguri on February 18, 2006, bent on killing him. At the time, Pona was conducting Bible studies at Maiduguri’s ECWA church. Meeting only Pona’s daughter at home, the gunmen quizzed her about his whereabouts and left, promising to come back for him.

A few hours later, Maiduguri was in flames. Muslim extremists upset by Danish newspaper cartoons depicting Muhammad had gathered in the palace of the Islamic leader in Maiduguri, the Shehu of Borno, and gone on a rampage, setting churches ablaze and maiming and killing Christians.

After four hours of carnage, 57 Christians were dead and 55 churches burned down.

It was not Pona’s first brush with opposition. Born into a Muslim family in Chibok town of Borno state – his father is still Muslim – persecution has followed the missionary to the Kanuri and Shuwa Arab ethnic groups for 27 years.

Pona said an encounter with his Quranic teacher at an Islamic elementary school planted in his heart the desire to know more about Christianity. His teacher would tell them that Christians would not go to heaven, he said, but he was attracted to Christian primary school pupils because they were always neat and clean.

“I wanted to be like them,” he said.

Pona said his inquisitive young mind embarked on a quest to find out about Christianity. He began secretly attending church services. When this attendance became public knowledge, his parents turned him out of their home.

“I got converted into the Christian faith in 1979, and because of this my Muslim parents threw me out of our home,” he told Compass. “My parents told me that they would not live in the same house with an infidel.”

He was unsure where to go, and eventually an uncle took him into his house in Potiskum, Yobe state. There Pona enrolled in primary school and later was admitted into Government Teachers’ College, Potiskum.

In Potiskum, he continued attending church services. Previously, in March 1978, a sermon preached by the late Rev. Baba Bawa of the ECWA had stuck with him.

“In the course of the sermon, he said that some people have gods they carry in their pockets and that these gods were dead gods who cannot save,” Pona said. “I was perplexed, because I had charms and amulets tied to my waist and some in my pockets, a very common practice among Muslims. I was shocked, because while the pastor was preaching he was pointing at the congregation, and my conclusion was that he was talking to me.”

Pona left the church that day with a heavy heart – but also with a determination to learn more about Christianity and to make a decision.

A conference organized by the Fellowship of Christian Students (FCS), an inter-denominational evangelical Christian ministry, in 1979 gave him the opportunity to make a decision.

“While we were there, a Jesus of Nazareth film was shown to us,” he said. “In a scene in the film, I saw the bloody hands of Jesus being shown, and Jesus was speaking, saying ‘This is my hand for you, all this suffering was for your sake.’ I started screaming there in the hall, but was taken aside and counseled by a Christian student and another Christian teacher.”

Pona recalled that it was March 23, 1979. “It was on this day that I finally received Jesus Christ into my life.”

His parents tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to abandon Christianity.

Hearing the Call

Pona joined the Nigerian Air Force in 1982, but retired after an accident to start work as a primary school teacher. Attending Borno State College of Education from 1983 to 1986, upon graduation he moved to teach at a high school in the state.

But in 1992, he had a sense that God was leading him to become a preacher. He left his teaching job to join the Great Commission Movement of Nigeria as a film evangelist.

In 1993, he left that ministry to join Eternal Love Services, a Muslim evangelism outreach in Nigeria. While working as a Muslim evangelist, he worked in places like Biu town, Maiduguri, and Kano, all Muslim cities in northern Nigeria, sharing the gospel with Muslims.

Pona studied theology at the Jos ECWA Theological Seminary from 1995 to 1998, specializing in missions and evangelism at the undergraduate level – with a research thesis on the Kanuri ethnic group and its resistance to Christianity.

Good Way Mission, the outreach ministry to Kanuri Muslims established by Pona, has a language institute where evangelists are trained to study Arabic, Islam, French and Kanuri languages.

While running his ministry to the Kanuri, Pona also doubled as the coordinator of the missionary arm of the ECWA in Borno. He was named chairman of Borno district of the ECWA in 2005, overseeing a church of over 2,000 members and more than 22 pastors.

Opposition remains fierce to his small church plant among Kanuri Muslims; some converts have changed their Islamic names to Christian ones to avoid being identified by Muslim extremists.

But Pona is optimistic, that, “like a mustard seed, it will blossom into a church that would become a gateway to heaven for Muslims not only in Nigeria, but in the African continent.”

Copyright © 2007 Compass Direct