ABUJA, Nigeria — A Christian woman in northeast Nigeria is on trial after being held incommunicado for more than four months on blasphemy charges for forwarding a WhatsApp message, sources said.
Rhoda Ya’u Jatau, 45, was arrested in Bauchi state in May after receiving a WhatsApp message from Ghana condemning the gruesome killing of Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu, a university student in Sokoto state also falsely accused of blaspheming Islam.
Jatau shared the message condemning Yakubu’s May 12 death with colleagues in Warji County, and Muslims who saw it accused her of blaphemy and sought to kill her. Security agents from the Department of State Services, Nigeria’s secret police, arrested her on May 20, and she was incarcerated when Muslim mobs stormed her house seeking to kill her, sources said.
“Ever since her arrest, Mrs. Jatau has been detained in prison over false accusations of blasphemy,” charged with “inciting public disturbance, exciting contempt of religious creed and cyber-stalking,” said her attorney, Joshua Nasara, in a press statement.
Efforts to secure bail for Jatau, a health worker with the Warji Local Government Area, have been “frustrated and denied by government authorities and leaders of Islamic groups in the state,” Nasara said.
The charges accuse Jatau, of Tudun Alheri, of posting a video that disparages Allah, Muhammad (the prophet of Islam), his parents and the entire Muslim community to a WhatApp group of the Primary Healthcare Authority of Warji Local Government Area, allegedly “with the intent to cause religious crisis,” he said.
The charges allege that she thus violated Sections 114,210 of the Penal Code Law and Section 24 subsection 1b(i) of Cybercrime Prohibition Prevention Act 2015.
Jatau was held for two weeks before she was charged, and since then she has been held incommunicado in prison as authorities and Muslim leaders in the state delayed her trial, Nasara said.
An application for bail was filed on July 20, after she was held the legal maximum of two months without trial, but it was not assigned to a judge until July 26, and by then judges had gone on vacation, Nasara said.
“It was in August that the application was reassigned to a vacation judge who heard it for the first time on Aug. 11,” he said.
The Rev. Ishaku Dano of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) in Warji County said the blasphemy charges are false. Jatau shared the WhatsApp message only as a word of caution against further violence in northern Nigeria, where Muslim mobs were wreaking havoc, he said.
“Information we obtained from Mrs. Jatau shows that the WhatsApp message she received and shared in her group was for caution against violence and against the use of derogatory language in addressing other people’s faith, but that was not the interpretation by the Muslims,” Pastor Dano said. “And since the occurrence of the incident in May 2022, there have been campaigns by Muslims for Mrs. Jatau to be killed for blasphemy against Muhammad.”
In the Birshi area of the city of Bauchi, gunmen on Sept. 16 broke into the home of Pastor Zakka Luka Magaji and shot a relative staying with him, sources said.
“Seven terrorists invaded my house and attacked me and my family,” Pastor Magaji said. “I was their target even though I don’t know their motives. The injured relation staying with me who was shot during the attack is getting better now.”
The chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Bauchi State Chapter, said the attack on Pastor Magaji typifies the challenges facing Christians in northern Nigeria.
“The government must do everything possible to protect Nigerians from such attacks by terrorists, as life is sacred and must be protected at all costs,” said the Rev. Abraham Damina Dimeus.
Ahmed Wakil, spokesman for the Bauchi State Police Command, confirmed that seven armed terrorists attacked the pastor’s home, that he was unhurt and that the relative was wounded.
“A 32-year-old man who is a member of Christian Life Church living with Pastor Zakka was injured in the process,” Wakil said. “The police personnel who were there on a rescue mission immediately took the injured victim and rushed him to Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University Teaching Hospital (ATBUTH), Bauchi, for treatment of gunshot wounds.”
Nigeria led the world in Christians killed for their faith last year (Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021,) at 4,650, up from 3,530 the previous year, according to Open Doors’ 2022 World Watch List report. The number of kidnapped Christians was also highest in Nigeria, at more than 2,500, up from 990 the previous year, according to the WWL report.
Nigeria trailed only China in the number of churches attacked, with 470 cases, according to the report.
In the 2022 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, Nigeria jumped to seventh place, its highest ranking ever, from No. 9 the previous year.
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