Amid the continuing sectarian conflict in Nigeria, members of the clergy are being singled out for attack by Islamist and criminal groups, according to church leaders. An analysis of media reports reveals that tens of priests and pastors have been abducted or killed this year.
Father Isaac Achi died when his parish residence was set on fire. Diocese of Minna
Nigeria’s Catholic bishops have warned that the Nigerian church is threatened by the plague of kidnappings in the country. Kidnapping for ransom is continuing unabated, and Catholic priests are frequently the victims, being seen as “soft targets.”
At a plenary meeting, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference accused the security forces of looking the other way as Christians are attacked.
“The failure of the government to tackle the issue of killing of priests has further contributed to emboldening other criminals to do the same,” the Bishops’ Conference was quoted as saying.
This year at least 13 members of the Christian clergy have been kidnapped and subsequently released, reports Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA). Others remain in captivity.
Kidnappers frequently demand high ransoms for their captives. The bishop of Sokoto, in northwestern Nigeria, Matthew Hassan Kukah, recently lamented the fact that the church was being impoverished by the insecurity in the country.
“I have lost a seminarian, I’ve lost a priest; we have spent over 30 million naira [about $37,200], which we don’t have, to rescue our pastoral agents from kidnappers,” Kukah told ACI Africa.
While criminal gangs are motivated by financial gain, jihadist elements follow a more strategic approach when targeting priests and pastors for abduction and killing, says Franklyne Ogbunwezeh. The senior researcher for Subsaharan Africa at CSI says their motivation is to establish an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria through a demographic displacement of Christians, especially in the Middle Belt of the country.
“They kidnap and murder Christian leaders who have a high standing in their communities, sometimes even killing them after ransoms have been paid. This is to detach the community from its center, making it easier to destroy those Christian communities.
“Most of the priests that have been killed in the Middle Belt, like Father Isaac Achi, were not only parish priests but commanded an influence that extended into surrounding communities,” said Ogbunwezeh, pointing out that Achi was the local chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria, an umbrella organization.
Plateau State-based human rights lawyer Solomon Mwantiri is warning that attacks targeting clergy in the Middle Belt are likely in the coming weeks. Mwantiri told CSI that, according to reliable intelligence, Fulani militias want to eliminate key local figures before invading Christian communities in the run-up to Christmas.
CSI research has identified 14 members of the clergy (listed below) who have been killed this year. The majority of the attacks were in Middle Belt states where jihadist Fulani militants are most active.