A religious sister prays the Rosary during a prayer and penance service for peace and security in Nigeria in Abuja on March 1, 2020. The Catholic Bishops of Nigeria organized the procession amid ongoing killings and kidnappings of Christians by Boko Haram and other Islamist groups.
A religious sister prays the Rosary during a prayer and penance service for peace and security in Nigeria in Abuja on March 1, 2020. The Catholic Bishops of Nigeria organized the procession amid ongoing killings and kidnappings of Christians by Boko Haram and other Islamist groups. (photo: Kola Sulaimon / AFP via Getty Images)

Facing the Root of Violence in Nigeria: Islamic Extremism (Season 4 — Ep. 4)

For at least 100 years Christians in Nigeria have been persecuted and the West has not wanted to call it what it is: 'violence by Islamist groups against Christians,’ says the Religious Freedom Institute's Stephen Rasche.

In this episode of Religious Freedom Matters hosts Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, director of The Conscience Project, and Father Benedict Kiely, a priest of the Ordinariate and founder of Nasarean.org, an aid and advocacy group for persecuted Christians, discuss the latest violence in Nigeria with Stephen Rasche, Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom Policy at the Religious Freedom Institute. Below is a trancript of the show.

Stephen Rasche [00:00]: You see it even still as well in Nigeria, where no one in the West — including the U.S. Government, the UN — nobody wants to address the fact that at the root of much of this violence in the north is Islamist-based violence that wants to remove these Christians forcibly. It clearly exists. It’s not something new. It’s been going on for at least 100 years and we don’t want to address it for what it is: violence by Islamist groups against Christians.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer [00:37]: That was Stephen Rasche. Steve is one of the country’s foremost experts on religious persecution across the globe, and is our guest on this latest episode of Religious Freedom Matters. I’m your host, Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, director of The Conscience Project. My co-host today for this episode is Father Benedict Kiely, a priest of the Ordinariate and founder of Nasarean.org, an aid and advocacy group for persecuted Christians. I’m so happy you’re with me, Father, for this important episode.

Father Benedict Kiely [01:08]: Thank you very much, Andrea, for asking me. And it is ... it’s a joy, and it’s a particular joy, to be speaking with Steve Rasche, because he is a man I’ve known since early 2015. We’ve been in Iraq together many times and he’s one of the champions, I think, in the world. There are so many people who should win the Nobel Prize, and lots of people who shouldn’t win the Nobel Prize, and Steve is one of those people who, definitely, if justice was around, he’d be a winner. He’s done incredible work in Iraq. And now he’s doing incredible work in Nigeria, which is so important that we know about the massive persecution of Christians across all of Africa, but particularly in Nigeria, and the importance of speaking out and advocating and trying to help our brothers and sisters in some way. So this episode is a very, very critical episode, Andrea.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer [01:59]: Joining Father Ben and me is Stephen Rasche, Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom Policy at the Religious Freedom Institute. Steve brings over 35 years of experience in international business and humanitarian aid projects in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America, with much of it in high-risk locales. Steve worked with the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil in response to the humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq caused by ISIS. He assisted the coordination of care of more than 150,000 internally-displaced Christians. He was a founding officer of the Catholic University in Erbil in 2014, where he presently sits on the board of directors. He also wrote the powerful 2020 book, The Disappearing People: The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East. Welcome, Steve, to Religious Freedom Matters.

Stephen Rasche [02:57]: Thanks very much, Andrea. It’s great to be here.

Father Kiely [02:59]: Thank you also for having me on the show, Andrea. It’s great to be speaking to my old friend Steve, whom I’ve known for very many years. Can you give us, Steve, an update on what’s happening now in Iraq and perhaps generally the Middle East? And do you feel that they are more secure, or are you still worried about the safety of Christians in Iraq in particular?

Stephen [03:19]: Well, certainly. First off, Father Ben, it’s great to see you again. We keep running into each other all around the world for these last many years and it’s good to see you. The situation now in Iraq certainly is better than it was four, five, six years ago. The Christians there are not in imminent threat of violent harm as they were, of course, during the situation in the ISIS war. But that being said, their situation is still tremendously difficult. They’ve lost so many people to emigration — people that left into the diaspora because of all the trouble, because of all the difficulty, because they had no homes left to return to, because their towns were so slow in being recovered and rebuilt — that many of them have given up. The population is now down to around 200,000 or so in the entire country. This is down from somewhere between 1.3 and 1.5 million in 2003. And so these numbers get really, really difficult to sustain a critical mass.That being said, they’re doing their best. There are some real solid enclaves still left in places out in Nineveh and in Erbil, and even an enclave left there in Baghdad, and the people are doing what they can to hold on to things. The biggest issue right now is livelihoods. The people have proven to be tremendously resilient in terms of dealing with the physical difficulties, but they need to be able to make a living at the end of the day. And this is a problem, quite honestly, not just for Christian Iraqis but for Iraqis in general — this issue of livelihoods. It’s especially an issue for the Christians in that there are so few of them, and it wouldn’t take too many more of them to begin leaving before you really get to a point where the community is difficult to sustain.

Andrea [05:34]: Steve, I wonder if you could speak a little bit about the significance of the humanitarian aid, especially that that came through groups like Father Ben’s Nasarean.org and the Knights of Columbus to help both recover and rebuild. What have you seen, and how important is continued aid for that endeavor?

Stephen [05:56]: Sure. Well, I can say without question in the first year or so of the ISIS war that without these private, largely Catholic aid groups, the Christians in Iraq would likely have already disappeared. The UN was already fully engaged in closing down the UNAMI mission in northern Iraq when ISIS came, and they were unprepared for it. The international community was unprepared for it. Why they were is a question that is a big, big topic for perhaps another time. But they were unprepared for it. And for these Christians, the only groups that were able to act quickly enough to really help the Church take care of all of these people were these Catholic aid organizations — Aid to the Church in Need, Knights of Columbus, a myriad of different organizations from around the world and also some from outside the Catholic world as well, within the wider Christian world. But it was these private aid organizations that saved that population in that first year and a half — there’s no question about it. In terms of where things are now: Yes, Aid to the Church in Need, Knights of Columbus, some of these other groups are still active on the ground trying to help rebuild these communities and the Church and the Christians really depend upon them. Because one of the things they face is that, even with receipt of big institutional aid — whether it’s the UN, USAID, what have you — this aid increasingly comes attached to a whole litany of social justice or political objectives driven from the West ... that if the Christians accept them in part, they have to reject a big part of who they are. So there’s a real price to pay for this and it’s a difficult thing. The Church and the Christian groups have been trying to kind of walk that narrow path where they retain their identity but still are open to receiving this aid, which they clearly need. And so in that respect, receiving aid from these private Catholic organizations — it’s a much more holistic and, quite frankly, healthy form of assistance for this small community of Christians there. I should mention that of the Christians in Iraq, over 80% of them are Catholics — Eastern-Rite Catholics, but Catholics every bit as much as Roman Catholics in the West. They track right up to Rome, to the pope. Primarily they’re Chaldean Catholics or Syriac Catholics, but over 80% of them are Catholics.

Andrea [08:54]: Steve, you make a really important point about, here are people who have suffered religious persecution and there’s a religious freedom issue when there are strings attached to the aid for their recovery. And we’ve seen it in all sorts of other contexts here domestically in the U.S. as well. But it’s very important that we push our political leaders to ... if they are going to continue funding, which they should, through USAID and other institutional efforts, that they don’t add to the suffering and the persecution by asking people to reject their beliefs in order to receive this important support that they need.

Stephen [09:35]: Yeah, it’s a huge issue and it’s not just an issue for the Iraqi Christians. We see it in Nigeria as well — this issue of aid being attached to Western social and political objectives that really compel the recipients to change who they are. And you know, obviously, it’s a complex discussion. I mean, if who they are is a group that’s causing violent harm to other people — well then, okay, you probably want to do something about that. But if who they are is a peaceful people who want to love their neighbor and have their way of living that’s thousands of years old ... I mean, cultural imperialism is the thing we’re supposed to be against, no? And I think it’s lost on a lot of the people in the Western governments — these increasingly-secular Western governments — it’s lost on them that, to the recipients of this aid, what they think they’re looking at is cultural imperialism. They look at it that way. It may be uncomfortable for donors in the West to hear, but that’s how it looks to the people on the ground that are receiving this.

Father Kiely [10:59]: Well, it’s very interesting you say that, Steve, because it’s very current, especially in Europe. There’s just been a report published by the European Union on religious freedom, which won’t surprise you, has not even mentioned the Middle East ... Christians in the Middle East. In fact, I believe there’s only one mention of Christians. It also, as it were, even attacked Christians for their doctrine and teaching, tying it again to all these social issues, but makes much mention of the persecution of atheists and other groups who are perhaps, we might call, more prominent today. There seems to be ... it certainly is a cultural imperialism. I think the great Cardinal Sarah has called it “a new form of Western colonialism,” which is very aggressive, and tying all of this to, really, abandoning the basic tenets of the Christian faith. So it’s actually ... it’s not morally neutral, this is an active ... we could .... I don’t want to use the word persecution because that sounds a bit too extreme, but it’s certainly hostility. Wouldn’t you agree with that?

Stephen [12:01]: Sure. And in many ways, I think persecution is the right word to use. It certainly is effectively a persecution when you deny the reality of the situation on the ground — that is a violent and harmful persecution against innocent people — and you deny the reality that it’s taking place, because it doesn’t fit a Western political narrative. And I think this is one of the biggest things that we faced from the beginning in Iraq ... was trying to educate the West that it was possible for Christians to, in fact, be a persecuted minority. This just did not fit any narrative that the vast majority of people in the secular West were willing to accept. In their world, Christians were the majority. They were the oppressors historically, wherever they had been. And so the notion that there could exist parts of this world where a tiny minority of peaceful Christians was just getting beaten upon over centuries — it just didn’t into their narrative at all, and we still deal with that. And you see it even still as well in Nigeria, where no one in the West — including the U.S. Government, the UN — nobody wants to address the fact that at the root of much of this violence in the north is Islamist-based violence that wants to remove these Christians forcibly. It clearly exists. It’s not something new. It’s been going on for at least 100 years and we don’t want to address it for what it is. We don’t want to call it for what it is: violence by Islamist groups against Christians. We faced the same thing in Iraq. You could call it anything you wanted, you could call it extremist violence that was driven by climate change or anything like that, but what you could not call it was Islamist persecution against minorities. And you would hear the same complaint on this issue from the Yazidis themselves, who were brutally terrorized by ISIS. And they have had an ongoing battle trying to get the West to understand, “Look, let’s address this for the reality that it is. These people came carrying a flag of Islam and said they wanted to kill us and wipe us off the face of the earth.” So let’s address the reality of it for what it is. And it’s not that there’s a lack of moderate Islamic voices that understand that this is harmful to these countries and to Muslims themselves. Those voices exist. But it’s an interesting thing that in the West, we don’t want to listen to those voices who are, in fact, coming out and saying, “Listen to these Christians. Listen to these Yazidis. They’re telling you the truth. We have to deal with this issue or it’s just going to continue.” There’s just absolute similarity in that in the situation in Nigeria and in the prior situation in Iraq.

Andrea [15:29]: Well Steve, you make a really good point about our ignorance and our reluctance in the West to see — to open our eyes and to see what’s going on. And in the situation of Iraq, it took a recognition that there was genocide happening, occurring, for both our government — and for all of us as individuals — to wake up, and to stand up to this and lend both our prayers and our voices and our resources to their concern. You’ve recently come back from a trip from Nigeria and you’ve mentioned this a few times in our conversation so far. I think that we are in another state of ignorance here in the United States in particular on that horrific situation facing Christians in Nigeria and other religious minorities. Can you give us an overview of what’s going on and where we need to be directing our concern to prevent a genocide from coming to its completion?

Stephen [16:34]: Sure. So Nigeria is a country of almost 240 million people. It’s the largest country in Africa in terms of population. It’s roughly split down the middle between Christians and Muslims — primarily Christians in the south, Muslims in the north, but with a significant Christian minority population in the north. Of those Christians, about 40 million of them are Catholics — and Catholics who, 90% of them, are in church every Sunday. They are really devout and have a lot of joy in their faith. But the situation in Nigeria right now is there’s a president — a Fulani Muslim president — who has essentially abdicated his role in terms of protecting the population. And the primary losers in that have been the Christians, especially in the north, who are just being attacked with impunity by Fulani, the herdsmen, today — and before that, elements of Boko Haram and ISWAP and similar other Islamist fundamentalist terrorist groups. So the Christians ... I mean, a day does not go by where there is not some Christian ... group of Christians ... murdered, kidnapped, held up, stolen away — women, children, all of this. We all remember the issue of the Chibok girls. You know the hashtag #SaveOurGirls — that was our response. Those girls are mostly still being held, and we’ve forgotten about them. But Nigeria is right now in a lead-up to a presidential election coming in about a year, and in that lead-up right now, the country is falling apart. It is on the verge of completely imploding because of the lack of security. And even the Muslims now are attacking the president on this issue. But if Nigeria falls apart, that’s 240 million people. And if the world thinks that it has seen a refugee crisis, it has no idea what would be in store for it if Nigeria falls apart, and the West better wake up. I mean there are, I think, three or four million Ukrainian refugees now in Poland and Slovakia and other places. And imagine 100 million refugees, all desperate to get out of a country, and what that would set in motion throughout Western Africa and the Sahel. And the West needs to sit up and pay attention to this. And the first way they need to pay attention to this is to be real about what’s happening. The crisis in Nigeria is not a crisis of climate change. Yes, there is climate change. Yes, it’s a contributing factor. But to say that this country is about to blow up because of climate change is not only false — it’s grotesquely, almost criminally, false. Because those are real people there. There’s 240 million of them in a country that’s about to blow up.

Father Kiely [20:04]: Steve, it seems that we know the Western media is not reporting about it. We don’t hear anything, really, most of the time about this. But there also seems to be a curious silence from the Church. It seems, in the Vatican, there’s very little Nigerian representation. I believe now there’s only — I may be wrong — but only one serving African cardinal. Is there a feeling that you’ve picked up when you’ve been in Nigeria that there’s a lack of representation — a lack of even concern, perhaps, in the Church, about what’s going on in Nigeria?

Stephen [20:35]: Yes, there is, Father, and actually it was a subject that was raised with me quite frequently. You know, I’ve now had many extended visits in Nigeria over the last two years and have traveled basically throughout the entire north and central part of the country and celebrated in Mass and witnessed confirmations and weddings and gotten to know a pretty wide swath of the people. And it is absolutely an issue. And I’ll give you one example of it. In the Masses over the last several weeks, the people are being asked to pray for the war and the innocent victims of the war in Ukraine and to pray for peace in Ukraine, which of course the people are happy to do. But I was approached on a multitude of occasions by people saying, “In the West, does anybody pray for the people in Nigeria? Because we are being killed every day for more than a decade here on this. Does anybody pray for us?” And some of these priests and even bishops who are aware of my background working in Iraq say, “You know, we are getting pounded on by our people as to where is the Vatican on this.” And it’s a difficult question for them. It’s an interesting thing, because there is a parallel there to Iraq, where initially the Vatican was slow to move on acknowledging that the Christians were being persecuted. They’re acknowledging their particular situation by name. Now, eventually, that turned around. The patriarch of the Chaldean Church was made cardinal. Cardinal Parolin, His Eminence, came and celebrated Christmas with the Christians there. And then, of course, the visit of the Holy Father himself. Pope Francis wiped that whole slate clean. And the Iraqi Christians — I can tell you without question, they love Pope Francis. They feel that the Vatican is very close with them. And it has made a tremendous, tremendous difference. But that was slow in coming and that was ... it was slow in coming.

Andrea [23:05]: You know, Steve, I just want to highlight that in my little church, my little parish in Virginia, we are praying for our persecuted Christian brothers and sisters in Nigeria, in Burkina Faso and Sudan, in addition to those in Ukraine. And I would encourage all of our listeners: Talk to your pastor. Get the plight of the persecuted — especially in Africa, especially in Nigeria — on the list of people that you’re praying for. This is significant. It’s powerful. If there are opportunities to gather together and do collections for humanitarian aid for their needs, do so. We are a powerful force and we are fortunate to be not under the same kind of attacks and persecution, and have incredible wealth that we shouldn’t be keeping just to ourselves but should be sharing to those that are needy and vulnerable in the Church. I’d also want to ask you, Steve, when you were there, what is the role of the United States government? We have always been leaders on the international religious freedom front. We have our first Muslim ambassador for international religious freedom, which is a very positive, interesting sign for engaging in dialogue, especially with Muslim-majority countries and their governments. Are you seeing the Biden administration take any kind of action in Nigeria? Are they continuing the work that was done under the Trump administration? And if they aren’t, what needs to be done now to protect these folks?

Stephen [24:47]: Well, unfortunately, it’s the opposite. Under the Trump administration, one of the last things they had done was to address the impunity with which the government is behaving in the face of all this violence against its own people, and particularly the Christians. They had placed Nigeria on the list of countries of particular concern. On the recommendation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, they had placed them on this list of countries of particular concern. One of the first things that the Biden administration did was not just remove them (Nigeria) from the countries of particular concern, but remove them completely from the list of countries where there is even an issue. And this simply floored the Nigerians. They had no idea what the basis was for that determination. They still don’t feel like they’ve gotten a straight answer from the U.S. State Department on that. There was a response from State that said, “We looked at it and didn’t think it met the criteria” — basically stating a conclusion. As far as the Nigerians themselves, the Nigerian Christians, they’ve been outspoken, saying, “Look, the persecution against us by Islamist violence is worse than ever. We have no idea what you’re looking at.” And the U.S. Embassy in Abuja is nonresponsive on this issue. That’s the best that we can say about it. Their narrative is that this is a conflict over resources driven by climate change. There may be occasional elements of religious violence in it, but that’s not what it’s based in. So the Church, the Catholic Church, certainly in Nigeria, has very little hope at this point that anything significant is going to come out of the U.S. State Department in terms of their plight.

Andrea [26:55]: And Steve, correct me if I’m wrong, but the kind of nonpartisan or bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom disagrees with the State Department’s kind of backpedaling on this issue. Is that correct?

Stephen [27:07]: Their response was that they were appalled and this decision is unexplainable. And you’re right: It’s a fully bipartisan commission.

Andrea [27:19]: Before we close out, I want to give you the chance, Steve, to share some bright lights. When you were in Nigeria, what inspired you as far as the resolve and the faith and the commitment of the Nigerians that are there, that are facing persecution, that really can teach us a lesson in the kind of grace and elegance under horrific circumstances?

Stephen [27:31]: I have never seen a church in my life where there is more joy on a daily basis. The Masses are just overflowing — not only with people, but with joyous people. I want to give you one quick example. I was traveling around the Yola Diocese up in the northeast with Bishop Stephen Dami Mamza — he’s the bishop of the Yola Diocese — and I was traveling with him on his pastoral visits to some of the outpost churches. We went to one church in a town where they didn’t have enough money to build their church. They had the walls, the cinder-block walls, kind of up, about five or six feet. The roof was just tent coverings. There were a thousand people at that church, and he confirmed 376 of them and held eight marriages — all as part of one Mass, the Sunday after Easter. A four-hour Mass — singing, joyous dancing, moving back and forth from their own native language, their hymns in their native language, or singing in Hausa, directly into prayers in Latin. That would put to test anybody in the West. There’s so much joy and love for the Church there. It is really astounding. And in the midst of all of their poverty and all of their oppression, still so much joy. Contrast that with the situation here in the in the West: The people are safe. The churches are beautiful — and they’re empty. There’s a lot to be mined out of that. These people are so close to the Church. They’re so close to the gospel. So much joy in them. It’s really a wonderful thing. The future of the Church is there — no question about it.

Andrea [29:59]: Well, I think you’re right, Steve, that there’s a lot that we can learn and we should turn all of this into thanksgiving for the gift that we have of our faith and of the ability to do ... to celebrate that faith and exercise that faith without these pressures. And turn our prayers for those who are under considerable amount of strain and danger in just living their faith. So many thanks to Stephen Rasche from the Religious Freedom Institute for joining us and sharing his experience as a tireless advocate for international religious freedom. It’s been very helpful to see the connection between what you saw as the struggle of the persecuted in the Middle East and those facing persecution today in Nigeria. To learn more about his work, check out the website of the Religious Freedom Institute at ReligiousFreedomInstitute.org. And it’s been great again to be joined with Father Benedict Kiely, my co-host on Religious Freedom Matters. I think, Father, you agree this was incredibly informative and inspiring conversation.

Father Kiely [31:02]: Well thank you for having me also, Andrea. And yes, I knew when you invited Steve on, you were going to get a good show. So he’s an inspiring man and I’ve known him, as I said, for a number of years. And even though he has to report some very disturbing and sad things — ending that conversation with that beautiful expression of joy and inspiration, this is what we must take away whenever our Church is persecuted. We see people who inspire us and that should give us the strength in the West to be people who are inspired by our joyous faith.

Stephen [31:32]: Thanks so much, Andrea; thanks so much, Father, for having me. It’s a pleasure to be on with you both.

Andrea [31:37]: You can find all of our current episodes at the National Catholic Register website (NCRegister.com) and the website of The Conscience Project at Conscience-Project.org. You can also subscribe to the program at all of your favorite podcast-hosting platforms. I’m Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, director of The Conscience Project. I was joined today by Father Benedict Kiely, founder of Nasarean.org. And I’ve been happy to work together with you to bring you this excellent episode and hope you’ll join us for our next discussions on Religious Freedom Matters.