In Nigeria, Faith Is Flourishing in the Face of the Deadly Persecution of Catholics

Religious-freedom expert Stephen Rasche discusses the recent deadly violence against Nigerian Christians, including this weekend’s Pentecost Mass massacre, and what Catholics elsewhere can do to help.

A police officer stands guard June 6 inside St. Francis Catholic Church, a day after an attack that targeted worshippers attending Mass for the Solemnity of Pentecost in Owo, Nigeria. The gunmen, who killed 50 people, opened fire on worshippers both inside and outside the building in a coordinated attack before escaping the scene, authorities and witnesses said.
A police officer stands guard June 6 inside St. Francis Catholic Church, a day after an attack that targeted worshippers attending Mass for the Solemnity of Pentecost in Owo, Nigeria. The gunmen, who killed 50 people, opened fire on worshippers both inside and outside the building in a coordinated attack before escaping the scene, authorities and witnesses said. (photo: Sunday Alamba / Associates Press)

Stephen Rasche is the senior fellow for international religious-freedom policy at the Religious Freedom Institute. He brings more than 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, including his current focus on Nigeria. 

Rasche, the author of The Disappearing People: The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East, was a founding officer of the Catholic University in Erbil in 2014, where he presently sits on the board of directors. He has served as an official representative to the Vatican Dicastery on Refugees and Migrants and is an official member of the Historical Commission to the Vatican postulator in the cause of Father Ragheed Ganni and three murdered Iraqi deacons. He also serves as counsel to the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil. 

Since 2019, Rasche has taken on additional work for the purpose of bringing best practices from his experience in Iraq to the ongoing and violent persecution of Christians in Nigeria. He is presently a visiting scholar at the Kukah Center in Abuja, where his work is focused on the plight of internally displaced persons. He was recently interviewed by Vatican correspondent Edward Pentin and offered his analysis of the Pentecost Mass massacre of Nigerian Christians in Owo. 


You’ve just returned from your latest period of work in Nigeria — what is your work in Nigeria, and is it connected with your work with the persecuted Christians in Iraq? 

I began work in Nigeria two years ago under a project funded by the Knights of Columbus to gather information on persecuted Christians there in the northern part of the country. This came out of the earlier work in Iraq, much of it funded by the Knights as well, in which we sought to bring effective messaging to the world as to what was taking place with the religious minorities in Iraq as a result of the ISIS war.  

Over time in Iraq, and now in Nigeria as well, this effort evolved into working directly within the Church in responding to the violence around them in a manner which clearly shows the core of our Christian witness, what we can actually be when we step out and serve. The Church at work in these conflict zones is directly confronted with this in a way that is quite different from the doctrinal and political disputes which seem to take up all our energies in the West. 

In Iraq, the Church responded to ISIS by building hospitals and schools, housing for the displaced, opening a university for displaced students. In Nigeria, now we are following on the best practices learned in Iraq, so there is very much a connection. The priorities for our work now are the building of a hospital and medical clinics, a school of nursing and developing livelihood programs. These are things which will serve all faiths, and their service, we hope, will speak for themselves. 

A critical thing in both locations is the leadership within the Church. Work such as mine would get nowhere without this leadership and support on the ground.  

In Iraq, we have Archbishop Bashar Warda and Bishop Thabet Habib Al Mekko and a group of truly inspiring priests and sisters. In Nigeria I am working directly with Bishop Matthew Kukah and Bishop Stephen Dami Mamza. These bishops are all great men, of great courage, facing real threats, while always being shepherds to their people. I can say, personally, it is a deeply rewarding thing to be part of the Catholic Church in action with men such as these.  


The horrific murder by a mob earlier this month of Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu, a student in northern Nigeria, for allegedly posting a blasphemous statement against Muhammad, and the shocking massacre this past weekend of Christians at Pentecost Mass in Ondo state, has focused international attention on Nigeria's Christians and their persistent abuse by radical Islamists. From your most recent visit, how was the situation facing the persecuted Christians in Nigeria — is it worsening, and why are Christians being attacked, and so brutally? 

Deborah’s murder was truly a shocking thing, even to much of the Muslim community. The sultan of Sokoto himself, the state where the murder occurred, spoke out publicly against it. Bishop Kukah, who heads the Diocese of Sokoto, did his best to keep things calm in the aftermath, calling for justice in response to this criminal act, and seeking to not further inflame the clear religious element of the murder.  

The possibility of serious widespread violence was right there, and his leadership on this was perhaps the primary reason it did not spiral out of control. Still, in response, he received open death threats from members of the Islamic community who claimed that Deborah had blasphemed and that therefore the response in killing her was proper, and no crime had been committed which would justify criminal charges against the murderers; Bishop Kukah was therefore wrong in calling for justice, and he should be threatened with death, as well.  

There have been calls from the Christian community and others for the government to take action against those making the threats, but nothing has come of it so far. In Nigeria, impunity abounds.  

As to this past weekend’s massacre in Ondo state, deep in predominantly Christian southern Nigeria, it is clear now that this culture of impunity that has been growing these past years is now out of control. The gunmen who were behind the attacks are believed to be Fulani Muslim herders, now evolved into roving bandits, who are moving throughout the country’s forests and are now attempting to show their power and ability to strike even in the south. It is not clear as to their exact demands from this attack, but it is clearly a statement that no place is safe, and they will use Christian innocents to make the point. Certainly the path ahead is a very dark one right now.  

One thing that is starkly clear is the utter failure of the present Nigerian government to protect its people and particularly its Christians from violence. In light of these attacks, which will certainly continue now, the Biden administration’s decision late last year to remove Nigeria from the U.S. list of “Countries of Particular Concern” regarding violence and persecution affecting religious freedom seems quite far beyond just mistaken. The Nigerian Christians were deeply disheartened when the decision was announced by Secretary [Antony] Blinken then, and now there are certain to be many voices which point to this decision as a specific contributing factor in the escalation of violence directed at Christians.  

One cannot look away from the fact that removing Nigeria from the CPC list was a precursor to the U.S. selling the Nigerian government more advanced weapons, which in the hands of the present government have so far done nothing to affect positive change in the country.  

Father Joseph Akete Bako was the latest priest to be kidnapped, and he died of an illness while in captivity. Other Nigerian priests have been killed in recent years. What are the causes of these kidnappings, what measures have been put in place to stop these kidnappings, and what more needs to be done? The government has banned all ransoms, but is that enough? 

It is not a question of the government not doing enough; it is more a question of the government not doing anything. Growing evidence indicates that members of the police and military are not just ineffective but even complicit. All of this stems from a collapse in leadership and control of the country, resulting in chaos and mayhem throughout the north and central regions — and even now in the south. Major highways are routinely blocked and raided by large groups of bandits on motorcycles. Railways and even airports are attacked by these same groups.  

There is no question that there is a real element of religious persecution at work in this: first, from Boko Haram in the Northeast, then with ISWAP [Islamic State West Africa Province] throughout the north, and now with the Fulani bandits seemingly throughout the country. And all this takes place against a background in the north in which there has been a systemic persecution and marginalization of Christians going back for nearly a century.  

But as this situation has spiraled out of control, it is now affecting many Muslims, as well. There is a presidential election next spring, and many are hopeful that a new government can start to bring things back under some control. But most expect that the situation will get worse before then and that Christians will continue to suffer the most. 


Despite all these hardships, the faith is booming in Nigeria. Can you share some stories and reflections on how much the faith is very much alive in the country? 

In these last two years, I have been able to participate in Masses in dozens of churches throughout northern and central Nigeria, from cathedrals holding thousands to tiny outpost churches up in the mountains, accessible only by long journeys on foot. In every place I have witnessed the same thing: great joy and deep participation.  

It is really an astonishing thing to see a Mass in which the entire congregation moves fluently between their native languages, then to English (one of the official languages of Nigeria) and then into Latin hymns and prayers, and then back into their own celebratory music. I have witnessed astoundingly deep and beautiful worship in these dilapidated, half-built churches. And everywhere I have been the churches are growing, really just overflowing. 


Why do you think the faith is so strong there? 

You cannot spend time in these areas, for me Iraq and now Nigeria, where there is real poverty, real persecution, a real forcing of people to the peripheries, and fail to see that the faith grows stronger as the situation grows worse. And I don’t mean this as simply a panacea to people who are desperate for anything to hold on to. I mean that they walk with Christ in a profoundly different way, perhaps a profoundly more authentic way. I think it would give most Western observers great hope in the Church and the faith if they could see it. 


What other signs of hope do you see in Nigeria for the Church? 

In terms of population, Nigeria is the largest country in Africa. Of its more than 200 million people, at least 30 million of them are Roman Catholics. Nearly all of them are in Mass every Sunday. And despite all the danger to priests and religious, vocations are booming. Seminaries are full, and there is no place outside of the conflict zones where churches are closing and consolidating, but rather the opposite.  


Do you have plans to go back there, and what can ordinary faithful in the U.S. and elsewhere do to help Christians in the country? 

My work commitment there is now long term, and I expect to continue working there for the foreseeable future. In these last two years I have developed deep friendships there, and I am looking forward to continuing as a meaningful part of the Church and all the good work and service it is trying to do. I have, of course, my continuing work in Iraq as well, so I am sure to be spending much of my time on that side of the world.  

Concerning help from the faithful in the West, of course first there is prayer and solidarity. There is real concern in Nigeria, which has been voiced to me by clergy and lay alike, that the current situation in Ukraine, which is of course a priority and humanitarian issue of immense proportions, is also at the same time eclipsing all other places of need around the world.  

These situations never have quick and easy solutions. The marginalized continue to suffer even though the camera and our attention moves on. For example, the Christians in Iraq are continuing to suffer throughout the country, including serious and disappointing marginalization within the Kurdistan region, where their future still remains seriously at risk. And yet their plight has nearly disappeared from our Western attention and concern. The first place where this can be balanced is in prayer for the marginalized and suffering throughout the world. Nigeria and Iraq should be on all our lists. 

Also, in the U.S. and EU, we can demand more from our leaders, both political and religious. Attempts to frame these massacres and brutal crimes as issues of climate change or other Western social-justice concerns need to be called out as not just mistaken, but in a real way complicit. Climate change did not kill the Sunday worshippers this past weekend sitting peacefully at Mass in Owo. These situations have no hope of getting better if we in the West continue to make up cover stories for what is actually happening in order to fit our other narratives.  

From a practical standpoint for those wishing to make donations to help their brothers and sisters in Nigeria, the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need are both actively supporting very positive work in Nigeria.